Farmers are Watering their Crops with WHAT?

California’s irrigation practices might startle you. Farmers in the Central Valley are using wastewater purchased from Chevron to water crops. A recent Los Angeles Times article provided that each day the oil company sells farmers 21 million gallons of recycled water. The farmers then use it to water nearly 45,000 acres of land, or what amounts to approximately 10% of Kern County’s farmland. The program received praise for its innovative solution to California’s water crisis, but there are also concerns over whether or not the water contains contaminants that are toxic to humans.

According to a recent report by Reuters, California oil companies used 70 million gallons of water for fracking last year. A large portion of that water is being returned to the aquifers from which it came, some is evaporated, and the rest is “cleaned” and sold to farmers. This cleaning process is relatively simple. The wastewater is put through a walnut shell filter, which begins the process of eliminating excess oil. From there, it passes through a network of treatment tanks and on to a “polishing pond.” It is then pumped into a canal that carries the recycled water eight miles to the Cawelo Water District.


While these methods have been in practice for decades, the government has never required the water be tested for anything other than “naturally occurring toxins,” such as arsenic and salt.  Government tests do not account for byproducts of fracking and oil production.

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Scott Smith, chief scientist for the water advocacy organization Water Defense, has been collecting samples from the treated irrigation water for the past two years. His analyses have shown that the reclaimed water contains toxic chemicals including acetone and methylene chloride, at concentrations in excess of what would be associated with the site of an oil spill. His findings also show that the cleaning process is not entirely successful in removing the oil from the water.

Oil Test

In addition to the lack of quality testing, oil companies have only recently been forced to release a detailed account of the chemicals that are being pumped into the ground during the fracking process. By June 15, in adherence to a law that was passed last year, not only will they be required to disclose this information, they will also have to release the results of tests that will determine whether or not the chemicals are making their way into water being recycled for agricultural use.


Smith, however, points to the inadequacy of these regulatory tests. The practice of taking a small sample off the surface of water, Smith argues, is like a photograph, only offering a glimpse at one side of a multifaceted story, and coming up short of reality. The methods he proposes will provide broader analyses of the quality of the water by testing it at different depths over a longer period of time, more like a motion picture than a photo. Smith says that a longer testing period will yield a glimpse of the contaminants over repeated exposures.

Oil Water

The big question is, of course, how much ends up in the food?

The soil prevents some of the impurities from ever entering the roots and leaves of crops. But not knowing which chemicals are actually in the water makes it difficult to determine just what and how much the plants watered with this wastewater will absorb. Without performing the adequate research, we cannot understand just how toxic this wastewater is.

Before we accept oil wastewater as a grand measure to ease the effects of California’s drought, we should ensure that it isn’t adding a dangerous body of toxins to the food we put on the table for our families each day.

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