Buy Photo

Californian columnist Lois Henry

In Kern County oil and water do mix, in a way. I'm talking about a program in which "produced" water from a long-time oil field is cleaned up and shipped to the Cawelo Water District where it's used to grow almonds and pistachios.

It's a great way to handle excess water from oil production and helps out agriculture, particularly in years like this.

A true win-win for Kern's two main economic engines.

The program has been around a good long time, starting some time back in the 1980s. In fact, it's been going on so long, even those directly involved didn't know when it started.

If it's not new or controversial then why am I writing about it? Well, a lot of you may not know about this cool program, so that's one reason.

But another is that the drought and recent anti-fracking hysteria has put this program on the radar.

So here are the basics.

The Kern River oil field produces lots of oil, but even more water, about 907,000 barrels a day, according to a handout from Chevron, which owns the field.

It is not, repeat, NOT, frack water. Fracking has nothing whatsoever to do with this oil field or this program.

Fracking refers to hydraulic fracturing, a process where water and chemicals are forced into oil wells far underground at high pressure to fracture (frack) the rock and allow oil to seep into the bore hole. There's a lot of controversy over what's in that water and how it's handled after it's extracted from the well.

The Kern River oil field is steam flooded, not fracked.

What that means is water, a good portion of it recycled from the water that comes up naturally with the oil, is super heated and the steam is injected into the field to help move along the sluggish, extremely thick oil.

And, like I said, a lot of excess water comes up with that oil.

Years ago, Chevron started shipping the water to agricultural water districts to the north. Initially the water was put into the Beardsley Canal.

Then, in the early 1990s, Chevron built a 42-inch, 8.5-mile pipeline from the Kern River oil field, which is north of the river near China Grade Loop and east of Meadows Field, north to Cawelo. The pipeline heads northwest to just south of Lerdo Highway where it dumps the water into a reservoir and Cawelo takes over from there.

In wet or average years, it's a nice little extra for Cawelo. In dry years, it's a lifeline.

That 907,000 barrels a day works out to about 30,000 acre feet per year.

As I said, Chevron keeps part of it to reuse in the field, so Cawelo gets between 20,000 and 24,000 acre feet a year, according to Cawelo General Manager David Ansolabehere. Cawelo pays about $30 per acre foot for the water, by the way.

This year, the Chevron water is by far the bulk of Cawelo's surface supplies.

The district contracts with the State Water Project for 38,200 acre feet a year. It typically gets 40 percent to 60 percent of that allotment. This year, it's only getting 5 percent, or about 1,900 acre feet.

The district also used to buy 27,000 acre feet of Kern River water each year from the City of Bakersfield. But that contract has ended and, besides, there's no water on the Kern this year anyway.

All of which makes the Chevron water Cawelo's most consistent surface supply and its largest this year.

Though the Chevron water does go through treatment to strip out the oil before it's shipped, it's still too salty to use on crops directly, Ansolabehere said.

It's blended with fresh water and then delivered to farmers.

Cawelo's total yearly demand is about 120,000 to 140,000 acre feet, which means Cawelo's growers will be pulling hard on groundwater this year, even with the Chevron water.

Ansolabehere said there's never been a problem with the program, other than in the early 2000s when the district was cited by the Regional Water Quality Control Board, which found the Chevron water too high in arsenic.

The district had a permit back then to discharge the water directly into Poso Creek during the winter months, when the creek is typically dry.

Ansolabehere said the allowable level of arsenic had changed and Cawelo was found to be in violation.

"We paid the fine and corrected the problem and we've been in compliance ever since," he said. "We continually test the water."

And state regulatory agencies have "free reign" to test the water any time and they do, Ansolabehere said.

In fact, he said, studies have shown an improvement in Cawelo's groundwater quality because, in normal years, the Chevron water allows growers to turn off their pumps, reducing pressure on the aquifer.

"It's been a tremendous help to this district," he said of the Chevron water.

Since the onset of the drought and stories about the program began popping up, both Cawelo and Chevron have gotten a lot of interest from media, other water districts and oil companies.

No other oilfields, at least in Kern, are helping water ag fields. The water on the west side is just too salty and would require far more treatment than is economically feasible at the moment.

Who knows, though?

With some growers paying princely sums this year for water (more than $1,300 an acre foot right here in Kern a few months ago), oil field water could some day find its way onto more and more Kern County crops.

Contact Californian columnist Lois Henry at 395-7373 or Her work appears on Sundays and Wednesdays; the views expressed are her own.