Walking on a Slippery Slope: Desperate Farmers Turn to Oil Wastewater to Irrigate Drought Stricken Crops
By Ryan Lopez
25 San Joaquin Agric. L. Rev. 1 (2016)
San Joaquin Agricultural Law Review
As a result of the longstanding drought in California, farmers have turned to the oil wastewater byproduct created by oil fields in Kern County to irrigate their crops. The drought conditions have produced record low precipitation levels while simultaneously reaching record high temperatures. With the enduring heat wave and overall lack of precipitation to replenish natural underground aquifers, surface and groundwater supplies are now at record low levels. The snowpack, which typically supplies a significant amount of the water used by cities and farmers, has also been negatively affected by the drought and is similarly at historically low levels. The drought conditions have instilled a sense of desperation in local farmers because their success in producing crops hinges on their ability to irrigate crops, which has now been threatened.
Home to one of the most prolific stretches of agricultural land in the world, and providing over $6 billion dollars in crop revenue per year, Kern County also boasts some of the richest oil fields in the United States. With billions of dollars in revenue on the line, desperate farmers have turned to the use of oil wastewater, an oily and salty byproduct of the oil drilling and extraction processes. In an effort to combat California’s crushing drought conditions, some local farmers have struck a deal to purchase the oil wastewater as a means of agricultural irrigation. While this may seem like a potential solution to the challenges farmers have been facing with the drought, past testing results reveal the presence of organic heavy metals, methyl chloride, chromium, selenium, and arsenic in oil wastewater. These elements have all been known to cause various forms of cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, skin lesions, damage to multiple organs, and in extreme cases, death. The potential for such substantial health risks begs the question of whether irrigation that employs the use of oil wastewater is safe for the soil, the crops, and ultimately, the consumers who eat those crops. The enactment of more stringent testing guidelines and regulations is vital to protect these interests.