Drought: Oil operation is water savior for farmers

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) With California's severe drought, local oil operators say they're trying to save water, and one program is even sharing a lot of water with farmers.

Chevron's Kern River Field has sent water to farmers north of Bakersfield for a number of years. This season, growers say it's more important than ever.

"In a year like this, with the drought conditions, it's an extremely valuable supply for us," Cawelo Water District General Manager David Ansolabehere told Eyewitness News. "It enables us to keep our crops alive this year."

The long-time oil producing field has extra water, and a lot of it. Chevron officials say in 2013, the Kern River Field produced an average of 748,000 barrels of water a day and sent an average of 513,000 barrels a day to Cawelo.

The water comes up along with the oil pulled out of the ground.

"With our oil production, for about every 10 barrels of fluid that's produced, approximately nine of it's barrels of water," lead land representative Abby Auffant explained. And, that water also happens to be better quality.

"Which is almost near fresh-water quality standards, so with minimal treatment through our filtration systems it meets the standards for agricultural irrigation," Auffant explained.

She said the water that comes up here is different than what Chevron gets in its other fields in Kern County.

In the Kern River Field, the water and oil mixture is first put in eight huge tanks. Next, it's allowed to separate, then the water is sent through filtration systems. Finally, it's piped to a large reservoir not far from Lerdo Highway.

The water reaches that reservoir at nearly 140 degrees, because of the steam used to get the oil out of the ground. In the big reservoir, the water cools, and it's blended with other water sources to reduce constituents, including salts.

Back at the oil field, some of the water that comes up is kept on the site for use in its operations. Chevron uses some 200,000 barrels a day to make steam for co-generation of power, and for "stream flooding."

Chevron's fields in west Kern County have different characteristics when it comes to the water that's produced.

"The biggest difference is the west-side, the water quality is different," Auffant said. It's not as near to fresh water quality.

"The water on the west-side would require an extensive amount of treatment in order to be used for agriculture irrigation." Auffant said some of the water can be recycled for use in their field operations, but not as much.

Other local oil companies that responded to questions from Eyewitness News said they also try to conserve and help out with water resources. That includes Occidental of Elk Hills.

"Oxy's water management program is designed to conserve and protect water sources in communities where we operate," spokeswoman Holly Arnold said. "Oxy's operations in the San Joaquin Valley supply more freshwater for agriculture than we use."

Arnold said in 2013, Oxy supplied 5,300 acre feet for agriculture. The company said last year they installed a system to recycle mineral-rich water from the Elk Hills Power Plant cooling towers to use in the Elk Hills Field, in place of freshwater.

Experts said the west-side oil operations do buy water for use in their fields.

West Kern Water District is one that sells supplies to them. Manager Harry Starkey told Eyewitness News his district supplies 8,000 to 10,000 acre feet per year to oil and gas operations. But, that's less than his biggest customer. That district also supplies 10,000 to 12,000 acre feet to three power plants in their area.

From Chevron, Auffant said their west-side oil fields recycle as much of their own water as possible for on-site needs, and part of it is then purchased from water districts in the area.

"In the current year of the drought where we're at right now, we're not seeing any reductions in our available water," Auffant said. "But, we're doing the best that we can in order to maximize our efficiency in our operations to make sure that we're, as consumers, using our water efficiently and effectively."

A use of water coming under scrutiny in oil fields is the practice of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." Water, along with some chemicals and materials like sand, are forced into wells to reach more oil. The industry says very little water is used in fracking.

A statement from the Western States Petroleum Association says they used data from the California Department of Conservation, and in all the wells in California in 2013, 323 acre feet of water were used in fracking. WSPA's statement says that compares to 34 million acre feet a year used for agriculture.

For agriculture, this drought year has real challenges. That's why Cawelo said the water from the Kern River Field is more important than ever.

General manager Ansolabehere said they're getting only 5 percent of their allotment of state water, so this year that's about 1,900 acre feet.

Meanwhile, they get up to 24,000 acre feet a year from the Chevron field, and also get water from two other oil company operations.

Ansolabehere said about 90 percent of the crops in the Cawelo district are permanent crops. They grow almonds, pistachios, citrus and grapes. Those crops must be watered, it's not a choice like whether to plant row crops.

"This is probably the worst drought conditions we've had in at least the last 20 years," Ansolabehere said. They started the project with Chevron about 20 years ago, this year the water is a lifeline.

"Hopefully next year will be a better water year and they can flourish more than just keeping them alive this year," he said.