BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) – If you’ve lived in Kern County long enough, you’ve heard the old saying, whether it’s from a farmer, on a billboard, or from a politician: “Kern County farmers feed the world.”
What a lot of people don’t know is that some of the food we sell on a global market – sometimes even marketed as “organic” – is grown using oil wastewater.
“It’s hot. It’s stinking. There’s oil floating on it,” said Tom Frantz, a small farmer and environmentalist. “Nobody should be eating that food.”
David Ansolabehere, the general manager of the Cawelo Water District, says they have been buying half a million barrels of water from Chevron every day for about 20 years.
Then they dilute it with fresh groundwater.
“The farmers here rely on this water. In years like this, we’re trying to keep everything alive at this point,” he said. “It’s a very good water supply to have.”
It’s supposed to be a win-win. For every one barrel of oil Chevron produces, another 10 barrels of the salty water come up with it.
Ansolabehere tells us this technique is fairly unique to Kern County, because the salt in Chevron’s water is particularly tame in this area.
“Other oil fields, from what I understand, much saltier. Ten times as salty,” he said. “Chevron is doing their job, definitely. They’re a very good partner.”
Even though Chevron’s water isn’t drinkable, the groundwater is supposed to make it less salty and more safe.
High sodium can make soil incapable to taking any more water, unless it’s flushed out.
“The higher the salts, the more it has the potential to burn the trees,” admitted Ansolabehere. “It’s canal water. You never know what’s in it.”
Frantz, a fourth-generation farmer, is more concerned with making sure his family can farm for generations to come than lowering his standards by taking this kind of water.
“I’m concerned about the salt and the more toxic chemicals that are in that water,” he said. “They’re sending more water this year than ever before. … It will build up in the soil.”
Ansolabehere admits that salt can harm soil or more sensitive crops, such as citrus. Still, he says they’ve never had a problem, because the district does testing multiple times a year to make sure that the salt levels are low enough.
“Normally, it rains, then those salts are washed down,” he said.
Frantz would rather rip out his trees – or let them die — than trust a system that he thinks regulates wastewater dangerously.
“If anybody is irresponsible, it’s the farmers that take that water knowingly,” he said. “They’re looking at short-term gain over long-term sustainability.”