Dirty Water

Wastewater injection in the San Joaquin Valley threatens farmland

Back Web Only Oct 22, 2015 By Alastair Bland

When Tom Frantz looks eastward from his small Kern County almond grove, the farmer sees a bank of low hills rising from the Central Valley floor and, eventually, building into the large peaks of the southern Sierra Nevada. Frantz has these mountains to thank for his livelihood, since the snowmelt that runs off the peaks eventually sinks into the ground and, over time, descends into the natural underground reservoirs of the Central Valley. In drier years, Frantz gets most of his water from wells that tap into this aquifer.  

But the water, Frantz says, is being poisoned. In these foothills, hundreds of deep holes bored into the ground are being used as disposal sites for water containing high levels of dangerous toxins — including arsenic, thallium and benzene. Some of the injection wells are illegal, though many are permitted by the Environmental Protection Agency. The agency allows oil drilling operations in California to annually dispose billions of gallons of toxic wastewater that spills from their wells during their drilling operations.

Legal or not, such disposal of poisoned water into the earth could come back to haunt our society, warn scientists.  

“We’re intentionally contaminating aquifers that today are not designated for human consumption,” says Mark Williams, professor of hydrology at the University of Colorado. “But 20 or 50 years from now we’re going to want that water.”

But it isn’t just our future water supply that is threatened.

“The very same aquifers that oil and gas companies are dumping wastewater into are being drawn upon now for irrigation,” says Patrick Sullivan, climate media director with the Center for Biological Diversity.

He says more than 500 injection wells, mostly in the San Joaquin Valley, have been investigated for illegally contaminating aquifers protected by the Safe Drinking Water Act. Hollin Kretzmann, a staff attorney with the same group, says there are at least 100 water supply wells within a mile of several wastewater injection wells in the San Joaquin Valley alleged to be unsafe.

The fate that Frantz fears seems already to have been realized on another nearby property. Here, farmer Mike Hopkins had to remove 3,500 dead or dying cherry trees in 2013 after they were apparently poisoned by tainted groundwater. A test of Hopkins’ wellwater showed it contained chemicals associated with oil well wastewater. A wastewater injection operation at work just yards from Hopkins’ property was named as the culprit.

The farmer is currently a plaintiff in an ongoing lawsuit alleging that state officials – including Gov. Jerry Brown – conspired to allow the continuation of illegal wastewater injection, even after a state employee demanded stricter scrutiny of the activity. According to the lawsuit, that employee was fired in 2011 and replaced with an official more lenient toward oil companies.

But UC Davis professor of hydrogeology Graham Fogg is not entirely convinced that pumping wastewater into the earth is the environmental time bomb others say it is. He says the great depth of most wastewater injection wells – sometimes more than a mile – makes them secure disposal sites.

However, Fogg does agree that, over time, effects of this practice could begin to surface.

“If you keep injecting into the deep aquifers, and I mean for like decades or centuries, could there be a longer-term effect? Well, that’s not impossible,” Fogg says.

When it comes to water under the earth’s surface, much remains unknown. For one thing, the speed at which subterranean water migrates seems to be anyone’s guess. Moreover, whether it will migrate at all is a valid question in some regions. That’s because rock layers, called aquicludes, can act as impermeable barriers that separate underground reservoirs.

But in regions shaken by seismic activity — like much of California — many aquicludes have been broken apart, says Timothy Krantz, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Redlands.  

In fact, Williams says that the process of injection itself can shatter the rock. “So, you’re essentially creating pipes for the water to move through the ground,” he says.

Krantz says there is no question that there will be intermingling between aquifers designated for drinking and those now used now for wastewater disposal.

“That’s how groundwater works,” he says. “It doesn’t just sit there or sink into the bowels of the earth. It moves down-gradient toward sea level.”

In the western Sierra Nevada foothills, that means the water will cross some of the most fertile farmland in America.

Frantz feels certain that his farm is one of many that will eventually be destroyed by a slow but steady downhill migration of tainted water.

“I don’t know if the water I’m pumping from my well today was snow in the mountains 100 years ago, 300 years ago or 15 years ago,” Frantz says. “But it will eventually get here. It’s a time bomb that will affect lots of land.”

The culprits, he speculates, may never face consequences.

“By the time our groundwater is ruined, the oil companies won’t even be here anymore,” says Frantz.


Tupper Hull, Western States Petroleum Association (not verified)October 22, 2015 - 11:54am

This article is an inaccurate and irresponsible presentation of a complex situation that has been the subject of a great deal of reporting by responsible news outlets. It is especially disappointing for a magazine that claims to have a business perspective to offer its readers such unbalanced reporting. The article states as fact that underground injection has occurred that is illegal and that has contaminated public water supplies. These statements are flat wrong. The State Water Resources Control Board and the California Department of Conservation have stated on numerous occasions that no evidence has been found to suggest underground injection of wastewater has contaminated anyone's water supply. Every injection well in California operates with a current permit from the State of California.

A few calls to the Water Board and the Department of Conservation would have clarified these facts. Anyone who would like to educate themselves on the facts about California’s Underground Injection Control program can learn a great deal by reviewing the California Department of Conservation, Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources website (http://www.conservation.ca.gov...). The petroleum industry’s perspective on this issue might also be of interest to your readers (https://www.wspa.org/blog/post...).

Underground injection is an essential part of providing California businesses and consumers reliable and secure domestic energy. We all benefit greatly from the well-regulated, well-managed domestic energy industry.

Patrick (not verified)November 6, 2015 - 5:17pm

State water officials have clearly stated that illegal injection wells HAVE contaminated water aquifers. They've tested a handful of water supply WELLS and claim those tests haven't found clear evidence of contamination, but the aquifers themselves have been damaged.

Just listen to water official Jonathan Bishop's testimony to the California state senate: “Let me be clear, so that it’s not a misunderstanding. We believe that any injection into the aquifers that are non-exempt has contaminated those aquifers. We are asking for information from the operators on that contamination. What we’ve found is that the aquifer, no surprise, has the material that’s been injected into it.”

Archived video of the Senate hearing: http://senate.ca.gov/media/joi...
Mr. Bishop ‘s remark comes at about 1:45:30

Brian Smith (not verified)October 28, 2015 - 1:03pm

"We all benefit greatly..."

Oh Really, Tupper?
Your industry is the only party that really benefits from poisoning the commons.
And we are starting to crack down on this abuse.

California halts 12 injection wells over water concerns - Reuters

"California oil drilling regulators on Tuesday ordered operators of 12 underground injection wells in Kern County to halt injections out of fear that they could contaminate drinking water supplies.

The action is part of a statewide review of California's 50,000 underground injection wells, which oil companies use to dispose of billions of barrels of undrinkable water produced every year during oil production."