A couple of separate, but kind of related, efforts to tar the long-running Chevron-Cawelo water program popped up on the Internet recently.

My initial reaction was to ignore them.

But, like cockroaches, they started multiplying on social media so I felt obliged to haul out the Raid. Again.

The basics are that Chevron has been delivering water produced from its Kern River oilfield to farmers in the Cawelo Water District for the better part of 20 years.

The water, which comes up as a part of the oil extraction process, is blended with fresh water and used to irrigate farms.

It is permitted and monitored under rules set down by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. The water has always met those standards.

This paper has written about the program many times. I wrote about it in 2014.

Then the drought worsened and super big-time media organizations "discovered" this program.

Just presenting the facts, though, wasn’t enough.

Several of those organizations — using the unfounded opinions of local almond farmer Tom Frantz, the questionable testing methods of water activist Scott Smith and the concerns of alternative energy activist Sean Shonkoff — raised questions about the possible toxicity of the water its effects on food.

In each of those stories, my media brethren also couldn’t resist adding the “F” word: Fracking.

Wells in the Kern River field aren’t fracked. There isn’t any frack fluid in the water sent to Cawelo.

But “fracking” is like the word “naked.” It draws eyeballs.

In the face of the inevitable furor, the Water Quality board expanded required testing, Chevron has supplied a full list of chemicals used in all its processes and a food safety panel was assembled to assess affects on food. (Shonkoff, an environmental and public health scientist, is a member of that panel, which will come up later, so stay tuned.)

So far, the expanded testing has shown the water to be safe.

None of that appears to matter to Courage Campaign Institute nor NextGen Climate, which has funded a series of videos put out by Spotlight California.

Let’s start with Courage Campaign.


Last August, it started a boycott against several local growers in the Cawelo water district based on a Mother Jones article and water testing by Scott Smith, with Water Defense, as reported in a Los Angeles Times article.

The boycott languished for several months but recently bounced back to life, gaining 50,000 signatures, according to Courage Campaign Executive Director Eddie Kurtz.

I asked Kurtz if he knew about the expanded testing the Water Quality board had done that showed the water did not contain the substances allegedly found by Smith.

I asked if Courage Campaign knew of the food safety panel’s efforts? Whether Courage Campaign had contacted Cawelo or Chevron prior to starting the boycott?

Nope. Nope. And nope.

I asked if it was responsible to start a boycott without that basic information.

“It’s 100 percent responsible,” Kurtz fired back. “That water stinks of oil. The farmers admit they don’t know what’s in it. Everyone’s saying it’s safe, but they have to prove it’s safe.

“I think it’s outrageous to insinuate that it’s irresponsible for us to throw up alarms about this when they need to prove it’s 110 percent safe!”

Yes, making baseless insinuations is bad juju. I agree.

Trust issues

Courage Campaign’s petition includes a pledge that signers will refuse to buy produce from the Cawelo farmers until they prove they no longer use oilfield water.

If all the Water Quality board’s efforts show the food is, in fact, 110 percent safe, would Courage Campaign end its boycott, I asked.

“No,” Kurtz said. They would only take it down if Scott Smith said it was safe because they don’t trust the government’s testing.

Kurtz did not, however, have the same reaction to recycled sewage water being used to grow food. Why?

“Because of the robust testing.”

Last I checked, government agencies test that water, too.

Before I move on to Spotlight California’s video, I must mention the Mother Jones article Courage Campaign relies on in its petition.

It says that testing revealed the Chevron-Cawelo water had benzene at levels higher than are allowed in drinking water.

Not true.

Benzene detected in the water sent to farmers had less than half of what is allowed in drinking water.

Drinking water standards allow 1 microgram per liter; the Cawelo irrigation water had less than .25 micrograms per liter.

To the tape

OK, so the Spotlight California video. (I personally cringe at the use of the nickname for a group of true investigative reporters who exposed wrongdoing by the Catholic church in Boston, but perhaps I’m too sensitive.)

This is an effort by billionaire-hedge-fund-manager-turned-climate-change-fighter Tom Steyer to “raise awareness” about various issues in the Golden State. Coincidentally, Steyer has helped fund at least one other Courage Campaign petition but isn’t involved in the grower boycott,  Steyer’s spokesman Gil Duran told me.

The Spotlight videos are hosted by the very funny and personable Kiran Deol, an actress and producer.

But they cease to be entertaining when the facts are trampled.

The video starts with almond farmer Frantz, a longtime local environmental activist, who makes several questionable assertions, including that certain oil extraction techniques (fracking) are being done for the first time on prime farmland. I covered fracking in Shafter nearly 20 years ago.

But, again, the Chevron wells that provide water to Cawelo are not fracked. Are. Not. Fracked.

The water issue is terribly flubbed as well with a graphic inserted in the video claiming 205 million barrels of oil were produced “using” 3.3 billion barrels of water. Wrong.

That water is produced water, meaning it came up with the oil.

Then there’s the issue of oil companies supposedly “contaminating” groundwater by disposing of produced water in unlined ponds. Yes, unlined ponds have been used for years. Most are permitted.

In the video, Deol says groundwater 30 miles west of Frantz’s Shafter farm has been contaminated from these ponds.

I asked Duran about that because it would be smack in western Kern County, where the groundwater is naturally brackish. That’s why westside farmers rely on water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta.

Duran initially pointed me to an LA Times article about contamination found near the Edison oilfield, which I pointed out is on the eastern side of the valley.

He then said the groundwater had been “impacted” near McKittrick and that the Water Quality board had confirmed that fact.

In the last year, the Water Quality board has been re-examining unlined percolation ponds throughout the area, including McKittrick, and has required more sampling and possibly monitoring wells.

But I could find no indication that groundwater had been confirmed to be contaminated in any documents dealing with this issue on the Water Quality board’s website. If it happened, I couldn’t find it.

Transparency goes both ways

All of which has nothing to do with the Chevron-Cawelo water.

As to that, one of the most egregious parts of the video is Deol’s interview with environmental scientist Shonkoff.

He very reasonably says that we should know what’s in the water so it can be properly tested.

It’s all about transparency, he says.

Great. Agreed.

Nowhere in the video do Shonkoff nor Deol mention that this is already happening under the Water Quality board and that he’s a major player in that effort.

Kind of important information, I would think.

At the end, Steyer asks viewers to “click below” to take action. That leads to a canned letter to legislators that quotes a San Francisco editorial acknowledging the Water Quality board has established a food safety panel (so, that’s something they knew) but the state should set standards for using recycled oilfield water and not leave it up to “regional variance.”

Kern is basically the only region where this happens, so not sure we need a statewide effort, but anyway.

I’m all for an open dialogue on these issues and I’m always in favor of more public information, particularly when it comes to our health.

But it does no one any good to distort, omit and cherry pick facts to make a point.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry. Her column runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or email lhenry@bakersfield.com.



Read archived columns by Lois Henry at Bakersfield.com/henry.

Lois Henry appears on “First Look with Scott Cox” every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM and 96.1 FM from 9 to 10 a.m. The show is also broadcast live on www.bakersfield.com. You can get your 2 cents in by calling 842-KERN.

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