The News Hog: California Is Irrigating With Oilfield Wastewater

Would you water your crops with wastewater from the toxic oil industry? It’s already happening and who knows how we all could be affected.

by Lisa Munniksma

Here’s something I don’t remember reading about when California’s drought hit cataclysmic proportions last year: They’re using wastewater from oilfields to irrigate food crops. They’re also pumping this potentially contaminated water back into underground water reserves, which could eventually flow through someone’s tap. The water is treated before it’s given its new life, but no one actually knows if it’s safe or if it still contains harmful substances.

To be clear, this wastewater is water that flows out of an oil well along with the oil. It’s water used to clean the wells and equipment, as well as water that’s used to extract the oil from the earth. This water is then separated from the oil and stored in retention ponds or otherwise disposed of.

There’s certainly enough wastewater being produced by the oil industry that someone should be doing something with it. In the San Joaquin Valley, nearly 84 billion gallons of wastewater were produced in 2013. In a state that is facing the most serious water challenge that humans have possibly ever seen, maybe someone should be paying closer attention to how it’s used.

The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board put together a panel to study the safety of irrigating food crops with oilfield wastewater—but farmers are already doing it, and people are already eating this food.

From an Associated Press article: “As of now, with so many unknowns about the hundreds of chemicals involved and their possible impact on crops, ‘We’re not able to answer the public definitely and say there’s no problem,’ said William Stringfellow, a panel member and environmental engineer at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley.”

The nonprofit Pacific Institute undertook a study of the issues surrounding the coexistence of California’s oil and ag industries, and it’s so bleak. They explain the challenges and potential solutions, but unless you want to feel really hopeless, you might not want to read it.

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Water-Quality Hypocrisy

In some irrigation-canal water tests, acetone, methylene chloride (a potential carcinogen), and hydrocarbons found in oil were found. I can’t help but feel like the lack of water testing and the unstudied use of oilfield water is hypocritical of the ag industry.

The Food Safety Modernization Act rules were just issued by the Food and Drug Administration at the end of last year, and one of the rules causing the most grief for small-scale farmers is the Agricultural Water Standards rule. (Read the whole rule here.)

The FSMA water-standards rule talks about microbial contamination but pays no mind to the chemicals that could be present in the water. The FSMA rule covers direct-contact irrigation, so if the oilfield wastewater were to be used on fruit and nut trees, it probably would not be touching the produce directly. No one knows if the chemicals can be taken up into the fruit, damage the trees or harm groundwater. Let’s not forget the risks to the farmers working with and around the water, too.

When someone can tell me that irrigating cropland with chemical-laden water is safe for the farmers, the environment and our food, let’s do it. But whoever thought we should go ahead and distribute oilfield wastewater without considering its risks should lose their jobs—same with the people who continue to let this unstudied practice take place.

(Hello, California? Flint, Mich., is on the phone, and they’d like to talk to you.)

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