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Oil, ag parry accusations they use too much water during drought

The second year of an extraordinary drought has revived a debate over whether two pillars of Kern's economy, oil and ag, are using more than their fair share of the state's precious water supplies.

A coalition of environmental groups sent a letter Tuesday calling on Gov. Gavin Newsom to take executive action to "balance water use and access in the state" by reining in what it called large and polluting corporate interests.

Representatives of the oil and ag industry countered the coalition's assertions, disputing estimates of their net consumption in some cases and asserting the accusations fail to account for benefits of the products they provide.

"I think we see during drought times an interest in finding sort of scapegoats for the drought," said CEO Richard Waycott of the Almond Board of California. "Of course, the drought's caused by Mother Nature rather than anybody in California."

The fundamental claims made by each side have been around for years. What's new is their urgency as the state makes hard decisions about how to stretch California's tight water supplies.

Worried about low reservoir levels and a small snowpack in the Sierra Nevada so far this season, state officials on Wednesday announced the smallest-ever initial allocation from the State Water Project: zero percent of requests with the exception of uses serving health and safety.

Almost four dozen groups that signed onto last week's letter, including Center for Biological Diversity, Food & Water Watch and Fossil Free California, pressed the governor to use his authority to place a moratorium on new oil and gas operations and factory farms.

The coalition also asked him to declare the growing of almonds and alfalfa nonbeneficial uses of groundwater. It requested he halt all new plantings of those crops, "while providing assistance to help small growers transition to more sustainable and less thirsty crops."

The group further called for greater transparency on water transactions and mandatory water conservation measures statewide, among other changes, some of which pertained to industries other than oil and ag, such as water bottlers.

"Taking these steps now will help protect the environment and water for all people in our state, and avoid much harsher measures as this drought continues," the letter stated. "Now is the time for bold leadership."

According to Food & Water Watch, almond and alfalfa irrigation uses about 3 trillion gallons of water yearly. It estimated large dairies use more than 142 million gallons per day and oil and gas operators have consumed 3 billion gallons of freshwater since 2018.

Spokespeople within the oil and ag industries took a different view about their water use.

The CEO of the California Independent Petroleum Association, Rock Zierman, said by email the state's oil industry produced more than 25 billion gallons of oil during the period highlighted by Food & Water Watch. All of the water was consumed by Californians, he wrote.

Another industry trade group, the Western States Petroleum Association, noted California's oil and gas producers are a net supplier of water. It said they clean up several billion gallons per year of produced water — the fluid that comes up from the ground with oil — for use by agriculture.

"If enhanced oil recovery and hydraulic fracturing stopped today, the state would be even worse off in the drought," WSPA said in an August informational release.

The Kern County and state farm bureaus did not respond to requests for comment. But people familiar with certain commodities spoke up in defense of the industry.

Waycott of the almond board said ag's water use boils down to "an existential issue, if you will, in terms of providing food for humans."

He disputed the characterization of almond growers as corporate interests, saying more than 90 percent of the nuts grown in-state are produced by family farms holding fewer than 1,000 acres.

Plus, the kernels most consumers see accounts for only about a third of what almond orchards produce, Waycott said. Hulls and shells have other uses, including feed for livestock that produce milk and cheese.

On a more fundamental level, he said, almond orchards absorb carbon and release oxygen, offsetting net carbon dioxide releases by urban areas. He added that about 90 percent of the water used by almond trees for transport nutrients escapes back into the atmosphere through the leaves.

He pointed to estimates California almond producers have reduced their water consumption by a third between 2000 and 2020, and that the industry's goal is to cut it by an additional 20 percent by 2025.

"What's overlooked is the continuous effort that agriculture's making" to reduce their water consumption and become more environmentally sustainable, Waycott said.

Daniel H. Putnam, an agronomist and forage specialist in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis, asserted that criticism of alfalfa growers' water use overlooks a number of factors important to resiliency and food production.

He referred to a presentation he put together earlier this year with other researchers saying examinations of certain crops' water use, such as almonds and alfalfa, should be balanced with considerations of productivity, economic return and food production.

Alfalfa, though a relatively high user of water, offers high flexibility during times of variable water availability, according to the presentation. It determined alfalfa's deep roots make use of residual moisture, allows multiple harvests per year and survives summer dry-downs such that it can regrow when re-watered.

Plus, it tolerates high salinity and can be flooded in winter to recharge aquifers, the presentation said.