Oil wells guzzle precious California water. Next door, residents can’t use the tap
A town in the oil industry’s shadow grapples with health fears as the state fails to limit companies’ use of fresh water
by Hilary Beaumont in Fuller Acres, California, with photographs by Pablo Unzueta
About this contentSun 22 Jan 2023 06.00 EST
Towering refineries and rusty pumpjacks greet visitors driving along the highways of Kern county, California. Oil wells sit in the middle of fields of grapevines and almond trees. The air is heavy with dust and the scent of petroleum.
The energy fields here are some of the most productive in the US, generating millions of barrels of oil annually and more than two-thirds of the state’s natural gas. And in a drought-stricken state, they’re also some of the thirstiest, consuming vast quantities of fresh water to extract stubborn oil.
But in the industry’s shadow, nearby communities can’t drink from the tap. One of those communities is Fuller Acres, a largely Latino town in Kern county where residents must drive to the nearest town to buy safe water. There is no proven link between the unsafe drinking water and the oil industry that surrounds the town, but there is a history of big businesses polluting the resources they share with their neighbors. For instance, nearby farming has left a dangerous pesticide known as 1,2,3-TCP in the drinking water.
Advocates say the dichotomy highlights deep-seated inequities in a state where water is a precious resource. The western US is in the midst of a once-in-a-millenium megadrought driven by the climate crisis. California officials have imposed restrictions on domestic water use and residents face fines for breaking the rules.
But as the state begins to phase out fossil fuels and usher in a sustainable economy, it has yet to limit the use of fresh water by oil companies.
Between 2018 and 2021, oil and gas companies in California consumed nearly 3bn gallons of fresh water for drilling operations – water that could otherwise have supplied domestic systems, according to Food & Water Watch, an NGO that focuses on corporate and government accountability. That’s equivalent to more than 120m showers.
Caroline Wren, a researcher with Food & Water Watch, calls it grave misuse that benefits the very companies that are exacerbating global heating.
“California cannot afford to waste water on industries like the fossil fuel industry that are unequivocally worsening the climate crisis and the water crisis,” she said.
‘Everybody buys water’
Fuller Acres is a community of about 1,000 people, mostly farmworkers, living in a collection of bungalows surrounded by a patchwork of farm fields and dozens of oil wells. A refinery looms over the town. At night, it lights up like a Christmas tree, and in the morning, it lets off flares that smell of rotten eggs.
In 2022, central California, including Kern county, experienced “exceptional drought” conditions, the highest category of official drought ranking. Other states in the western US also saw exceptional drought in 2022. Although historic rains flooded California in January, Kern county remains in severe drought.
On a mild December afternoon, stray dogs roam the Fuller Acres convenience store parking lot in search of kind faces and snacks. The catchy beats of Bad Bunny emanate from passing traffic.
Around the corner, Maria Villa lives in a cheerful turquoise bungalow. Her hair is pulled into a high bun and gray wisps frame her face.
She has lived here for decades but has long avoided drinking the tap water. About 20 years ago, when her parents became sick, she began to suspect the water was unsafe. “They died of cancer,” she said. “My dad had cancer in his stomach, and I don’t know if that happened [because of] the water or something else.
“He always drank the water from the house, and then when he started getting sick, I started buying water.”
The Fuller Acres Water Company, which is responsible for the community’s water, sent her a notice warning that her water was contaminated with 1,2,3-TCP, which the EPA has classified as probably carcinogenic to humans because it causes cancer in animals. TCP was manufactured by companies such as Shell and Dow and used by farmers in central California from the 1950s to the 1980s.
In 2018, Fuller Acres Water Company became one of 40 local water suppliers in California to sue Shell and Dow, accusing them of contaminating water with TCP. Shell and Dow have settled dozens of cases.
Now, Maria Villa and her sister Angelita Villa only use the tap water to wash dishes and shower. “I have rashes on my face and body,” Angelita said in Spanish, scratching her arms.
Twice a week, Villa drives to Lamont, a town about three miles away, to buy water from dispensing machines. It costs her about $48 per month on top of her domestic water bill of $210 a month. Her neighbors face the same reality: “Everybody is the same, everybody buys water.”
Water inequity in the Central Valley exists because water delivery is highly fragmented. While cities have significant freshwater resources to meet demand from residents and industry, including oil companies, smaller communities have never been hooked up to a large municipal supplier and instead draw water from wells.
Drought puts these communities at risk as decreasing surface water supply increases reliance on groundwater. Oil and agricultural companies drill deep wells that suck up groundwater, which in turn depletes the water in shallower wells that residents rely on, increasing concentrations of existing contaminants, or drying up the wells altogether. A new study in the journal Nature Communications found that groundwater was rapidly depleting in the Central Valley, which includes Fuller Acres.
The wastewater used in oil extraction can also put drinking water at risk. KQED reported in 2017 that companies injected wastewater directly into protected aquifers, and thousands of wastewater wells across the state could be contaminating drinking water. A 2021 paper found that wastewater disposal by oil companies affected aquifers used for public and agricultural water supplies.
Fuller Acres and other small towns in Kern county face a “double whammy” of chemicals from agriculture and oil extraction, explained Sandra Plascencia-Rodriguez, Kern county policy advocate with Leadership Counsel, a group that provides legal representation and policy advocacy to low-income, rural communities in California.
According to Leadership Counsel, because small communities like Fuller Acres don’t have the financial means to dig deeper wells or operate and maintain water treatment plants, they’re harder hit by lowering groundwater levels and groundwater contamination.
What can the state do?
Kern county’s ageing oil fields use a lot of water. Most of the easy oil has been pumped out, leaving thick, syrupy oil that’s hard to extract. As one state report put it, sucking heavy crude from the ground is like drinking a milkshake through a thin straw.
To solve this problem, companies use “enhanced oil recovery” methods, some of which use fresh water. In Kern county, it’s common to inject steam at temperatures of up to 300C into oil wells, heating the heavy crude and helping it flow to the surface. This method also requires huge amounts of energy, making Kern county’s Midway Sunset oil field one of the world’s highest greenhouse gas emitters, rivaling Canada’s oil sands.
Tony Kovscek, professor of energy science and engineering at Stanford University, said steam injection requires high quality water: “If the water is low quality, you damage the steam generator and you have to do a lot of maintenance.” Although oil companies do use fresh water from municipal sources, he said, they mostly use recycled water that is treated.
Still, to get high quality fresh water, oil operators also draw from surface sources, such as lakes and rivers, and from underground aquifers. According to an analysis by the non-profit FracTracker Alliance, between 2018 and 2020, oil and gas operators used 302m gallons of potable groundwater from California’s aquifers.
Under the 2014 water use transparency law SB1281, operators are required to report how much of the water they use would otherwise have been available for domestic use or agriculture. According to a recent analysis of water disclosures by InsideClimate News, in 2021 Kern county’s oil and gas companies diverted about 58m gallons of water from the State Water Project, a vast system of pipes and aqueducts that transports crucial water resources from the Sierra Nevada snowpack to southern California.
Oil and gas companies are far from the only water-guzzlers. Stacked against the Central Valley’s vast agriculture industry, the amount used by oil is relatively small. While oil and gas operators used nearly 3bn gallons of fresh water from 2018 through 2020 that would have otherwise been used by domestic systems, Food & Water Watch estimated that almond groves alone used 4tn gallons of water over the same period. But Wren said the harm that oil and gas companies cause in communities – the pollution, health impacts and climate crisis – “makes their water use pretty egregious”.
California does not restrict oil companies’ use of this fresh water, according to Buzz Thompson, faculty director at Stanford’s Water in the West program. An earlier draft of SB1281 required oil producers to only use recycled water during a drought, but it was removed amid objections from the oil industry. The situation has put state officials, including California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, under fire for failing to take action.
According to Thompson, the state does have the power to act. California’s constitution states that fresh water can only be used for “reasonable and beneficial” applications. It is up to the state water resources control board, the agency responsible for California’s water management, or a court to decide what qualifies. But historically, the state has been reluctant to entirely halt use of fresh water by commercial entities. A rare exception occurred in 1935, when the California supreme court ruled that a farmer couldn’t use fresh water to drown gophers.
Thompson added that under emergency powers, the governor could direct the board to examine whether the use of water by oil companies is “reasonable and beneficial”.
Kyle Ferrar, the western program coordinator at FracTracker Alliance, pointed out in a 2021 report that Newsom had asked California residents to cut their personal domestic consumption of water by 15%, but he had done little to address the consumption of water by fossil fuel companies. Ferrar said outdated water laws in California continued to uphold the status quo, even as the state wrestles with continuing drought. “A lot of this just comes down to historical records and historical contracts that guaranteed the industry these volumes of water, and they’ve never been reviewed. There’s never been any legislation to consider the validity or the necessity of them, either.”
Asked why the governor wasn’t taking executive action to limit water use by oil companies, the governor’s office did not directly respond but said that the state does not have direct authority over oil companies’ water use. However, if an oil company has a water right, it must comply with state water board rules, the statement said. Thompson said that was correct, but the state did have the authority to review a municipality’s decision to sell surface water to an oil company.
Thompson said the solution to stark water inequity in the Central Valley was to hook up small communities to municipal systems. The state is working on that – it has a program to effectively “adopt” communities with shoddy water systems. The governor’s office said the state had earmarked $2.7bn in financial assistance that prioritized disadvantaged communities.
Residents protect themselves
As they wait for the state to take action, Kern county residents are left to figure things out for themselves.
A water-dispensing machine in Lamont advertises water for 25 cents a gallon or $1 for five gallons. Alejandro Sanchez opens a small door and inserts a gallon jug under the spout. He feeds a bill into the machine and presses a button. Water pours in.
He lives down the street and prefers to buy water rather than drink from his tap, he explains in Spanish. Once it is full, he balances the heavy jug on his shoulder, waits for a break in traffic, and walks across the highway toward home.
Lucy Basket, who lives in Lamont, parks her car at the water machine. She only fills her gallon jugs halfway because she has pain in her shoulders. She places the jugs in her backseat and secures them with seatbelts.
“I feel safer drinking this water,” she said in Spanish. “If you drink [tap water] a lot, you will get sick, but if you don’t you’ll be fine.”
Fuller Acres is one of dozens of disadvantaged unincorporated communities in Kern county – a designation for disproportionately low-income places that are outside city limits. Plascencia-Rodriguez of Leadership Counsel argued that Fuller Acres residents pay taxes and therefore Kern county should step up to help them access clean drinking water. “They want to see the county invest in them, just like they invest in the county,” she said.
Advocates with Leadership Counsel are asking the county to set aside funding in its budget to pay for bottled water deliveries at least twice a month.
Maria Villa said bottled water deliveries would help, as would better filtration of the tap water.
Villa questioned why oil companies are allowed to use so much high-quality fresh water while Fuller Acres doesn’t have safe water. “Why can’t they put the same water here?”