It makes Edison-area oilfield operator Michael Unsell sick to think about the roughly 40 billion gallons of wastewater that get flushed deep underground every year as part of local oil production.
If only there were an economical way to filter out boron, salt and other impurities from "produced water" that comes up from the ground with oil, he said. Perhaps then it could be sold to farmers or industrial water users.
"You've got to make it where you can reuse that water," Unsell said.
A potential solution drew him and dozens of others Thursday to a Wasco facility that expects to begin recycling 210,000 gallons of produced water per day by July, and process perhaps twice that volume by the end of this year.
The wastewater treatment plant, owned by locally based Watershed Tech Services LLC, would receive produced water by truck from nearby oilfields and reuse all but about 6 percent of the incoming fluid, with the remainder being disposed of by conventional means, such as injection wells.
Watershed consultant-manager Dundee Kelbel said about 70 percent of the fluid exits the treatment process clean enough to exceed local drinking water standards. He said it can be used for purposes such as rinsing industrial equipment, controlling dust or making concrete.
About a quarter of the produced water ends up as brine water suitable for use as well drilling fluid.
"Ninety-three percent of it is beneficially reused by the community at large," Kelbel said. The cleanest of the effluent might ultimately be used for irrigation, he added.
The plant is expected to create 12 to 20 jobs for local technicians.
The question of how to handle produced water has posed a serious challenge to Kern County oil producers for several years, as the traditional approaches — injection wells and evaporation ponds — have come under close scrutiny by state and local regulators.
If oil companies can't dispose of produced water economically, they could be forced to shut down production wells altogether, which costs local jobs and income.
At the same time, drought conditions in recent years have created a strong incentive for farmers to consider new sources of irrigation water. Some already use treated water from oil producers including Chevron Corp., which processes the fluid but ends up diluting it with freshwater to achieve the necessary purity.
That process came under attack a few years ago after environmental organizations raised questions about possible health problems. The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, based in Fresno, is now about three years into a scientific review of the practice.
While a final determination may be a year or more away, preliminary findings suggest the process used by Chevron and others leaves irrigated fruit and nuts with concentrations of unhealthy chemicals well within acceptable ranges. But variations in samples have highlighted the need for further investigation.
"Our goal is to know everything that’s potentially in that water,” said Clay Rodgers, the regional water board's assistant executive officer.
Watershed uses filtration technology developed by Los Angeles-based MembranePRO Services, a privately owned company that is part of Water Planet, also based in L.A.
MembranePRO's technology employs artificial intelligence to analyze incoming wastewater and decide the most efficient way to clean it. It separates solids from the fluid then uses a non-ceramic membrane to filter out dissolved materials.
The company's CEO, Arian Edalat, said the process at work in Wasco reduces energy use to 40 percent below conventional filtration methods.
Kelbel said Watershed, whose 33,000-square-foot, leased facility is strategically located near ag operations and oilfields, has signed up about 10 local independent oil producers, and is working on a demonstration basis with four large oil companies. He said the company is also talking with concrete makers and other industrial water users. Wastewater supplier, as well as end users of purified water, would pay for the company's services.
If the Wasco plant becomes a success, he said, the operation can be quickly scaled up to handle many times the current capacity. Watershed hopes to build similar wastewater plans in the oil production areas of Belridge in Lost Hills.
Investors in Arizona, California and Texas have kicked in more than $5 million to Watershed, which was established in 2017 but relies on work done for several years before that.
A representative of Kern County Supervisor David Couch attended Thursday's event and offered praise for the facility.
"What wouldn't you love about a project like this?" Couch representative Sal Moretti told the audience of a few dozen investors and potential customers.