Christine Zimmerman

Even a casual follower of water issues in California is aware of the incessant claims of “perpetuation of misinformation” regarding water safety related to Kern County’s two largest industries: agriculture and petroleum.

Anti-energy groups consistently present a litany of ill-defined claims regarding the safety and the need for beneficial reuse of oil-field-produced water. In fact, to drill down past the rhetoric and arrive at facts is quite an effort. “Facts” like those presented by the nonprofit PSE Healthy Energy in its Oct. 4, 2016, “Hazard Assessment of Chemical Additives Used in Oil Fields that Reuse Produced Water for Agricultural Irrigation, Livestock Watering, and Groundwater Recharge in The San Joaquin Valley of California: Preliminary Results.”

A quick internet search for the PSE Healthy Energy’s report yields a range of articles that spin and misinterpret the actual report. Although agriculture and petroleum have worked together to beneficially reuse produced water since 1980, both industries have been quick to acknowledge that the current research includes the words “preliminary results.”


As in, we have done the first part of the work and pointed out the recommended next steps, but we aren’t at the end of this yet. Both industries and academia will spend tens of millions of dollars in the years ahead ensuring that crops are safe and that our precious water resources are responsibly utilized.

There are constituents in oil-field-produced water for which a standard and EPA-approved testing methodology have yet to be developed. Both industries are aware of this, as well as the state and regional water boards; the food safety panel; and the Department of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources. This is one of the good reasons for appointing a multi-industry group of experts to the food safety panel.

Equally important to note is that no evidence of any hazardous concentration of constituents has been found in any crop tested to date. In fact, crops irrigated with beneficially reused and blended oil-field-produced water are identical to crops irrigated with other sources of irrigation water. Everyone involved in this effort is dedicated to completing the food safety panel’s recommended process.

This effort will further impact the cost of doing business in California, yet most anyone in these industries will tell you they support the effort to thoroughly research and vet this nearly 40-year-old practice. Why, one might ask? The following paragraph sums it up for me and many of my colleagues.

As a scientist and businesswoman who was born in this valley and who is raising a 9-year-old daughter here, I see the irresponsibility of the emotional statements frequently employed by anti-energy groups. Statements such as, “People’s health should be more highly valued than industry profits.” Of course it should. Not only should it, but it is. Those of us who work in agriculture and petroleum also live here. We eat the produce and drink the water. We give this produce and water to our precious children. While it may be convenient and feel righteous to say, “This practice and its proposed expansion pose a serious threat to our agricultural economy and should be stopped immediately,” the facts remain that we face severe drought and overdraft of our groundwater basins in the Central Valley. As most Californians know, the apparent end of our current drought cycle will be followed up in another decade or so with the next drought cycle. We must prepare for that eventuality and continue developing innovative ways to beneficially reuse water. We also carry the water debt for food and energy production for significant portions of the United States and the rest of the world. Additionally, a significant portion of our population lives at or below the level of poverty; they cannot shop at high-end markets. As such, it is our goal to provide safe and affordable produce and energy. These obligations are most serious and carry the responsibility to be increasingly aware of the opportunity to reuse what precious water we have. We will continue to do so while setting the standard for good science and technological evolution. The next steps in the collaboration among agency and industry folks will continue to move this process forward in a responsible manner.

— Christine Zimmerman, owner of Zimmerman Consulting, is a native of Taft and a wife and mom in Bakersfield. She attended Taft College, CSUB and the University of Nevada, earning degrees in geology and geological engineering with focused studies in aqueous geochemistry, hydrogeology and geologic engineering. She provides regulatory affairs and compliance support to companies in Kern County.

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