In the winter of 2001, Tom Frantz and a friend were cruising in his pick-up truck along a stretch of Highway 33 in Kern County, California. Known as the Petroleum Highway, this particular stretch of the roadway cuts across some of the state's largest oil fields. Frantz, a mustachioed man whose wispy white hair is usually hidden beneath a beige fedora, was born and raised in Kern County; he was used to seeing pumpjacks bobbing up and down on the west side of the region, but on this cool winter day, a plume of steam in the distance caught his eye.
Frantz turned onto an unmarked, dirt road to get closer to the source. A quarter-mile off the highway, he came upon at least a dozen massive, earth-banked ponds swirling with hot, discolored water, their banks rimmed with what looked and smelled like slick, black oil. The row of ponds stretched out a half-mile to the west. Feeling overwhelmed by the odious reek of the tar, Frantz snapped a few pictures of the ponds and headed back to his home in Shafter, one of the tiny cities within Kern County.
In the following days and weeks, Frantz began asking family members, friends, and everyone he knew who worked in the oil fields about the ponds.
Through those conversations, Frantz learned that the foul-smelling ponds he'd stumbled upon were, in fact, a system of interconnected pools in which oil operators were disposing of what's known in the industry as "produced water"—the water operators bring to the surface along with oil that's laced with both naturally occurring contaminants and industry chemicals used during drilling or extraction operations. For every barrel of oil pulled from the ground in California, operators produce about 17 barrels of water on average.
Operators have several options for disposing of produced water: They can clean it up and reuse it for enhanced oil recovery techniques like cyclic steaming or for agriculture irrigation, inject it back underground into aquifers not used for drinking water, or dump it in ponds designed to let percolation or evaporation run its course. Percolation ponds are by far the most economical option for oil operators.
Frantz, an avid environmentalist and farmer (and a math teacher at that time), couldn't stop thinking about the ponds. "The smell of oil was so strong when you got close to those ponds, I knew those emissions were adding to our air pollution," Frantz says. Just a few years earlier, Frantz had co-founded a grassroots air quality group called the Association of Irritated Residents in 1998. "I started trying to figure out where all these ponds were, how much of it was going on," he says. "A few years later I did get ahold of a good satellite map."
Using Google Earth, Frantz saw the full extent of the ponds for the first time: scores of long, narrow pools laid out in neat rows. From his home computer, Frantz converted the length and width of the ponds on the screen to square feet and acres. Frantz wanted to see if his numbers lined up with the inventories kept by the state's air and water regulators. "It turned out neither of them had any idea how many acres of these ponds were out there," he says. Eventually, Frantz began collecting one-time air samples from the edge of the ponds with vacuum chambers—containers that suck in air when opened and can be sealed off to prevent contamination. The samples, though just snapshots of the air above the ponds, contained serious chemicals—methane, toluene, benzene.
"We started trying to get officials to come out and see these ponds, " Frantz says, "but nobody seemed very interested."
California is one of last oil states in the nation to allow the use of unlined percolation ponds for produced water. Pond permits are under the purview of the state and regional water boards, which require operators to show that the industry wastewater will not percolate down into freshwater reservoirs used for drinking water or agriculture. The vast majority of those pits are in the Central Valley, not only because the region is home to some of the state's highest-producing oil fields, but also because the groundwater was long believed to be too salty to grow most crops. In other words, there was little risk of produced water percolating down into useable water.
"A common convention was that there's no high quality groundwater on the west side of Kern, and so it's been treated as a sacrificed zone," says Andrew Grinberg, the national campaigns special projects manager with the environmental group Clean Water Action. But in recent years, research has shown that high-quality groundwater is more abundant in the Central Valley—where roughly a quarter of the food consumed in the United States every year is produced—than previously thought. One 2016 paper, for example, found three times as much fresh groundwater in the Central Valley as previous estimates.
"Oil companies have dumped what they want and pretended they aren't impacting useable groundwater." Grinberg says, "That's not the case. The monitoring reports are starting to show that there is high-quality groundwater over there and that these activities are impacting it."
More than a dozen years after Frantz first encountered the produced water ponds, officials finally began paying attention. In the fall of 2013, after public scrutiny of oil field activities in California reached a head, Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 4 into law—a piece of groundbreaking legislation that gave the state some of the strictest fracking regulations in the country and, among other things, gave the State Water Resources Control Board new authority to regulate some oil and gas operations. Now tasked with regulating the groundwater monitoring requirements for fracking and other forms of oil operations, the water boards took a renewed interest in produced water ponds.
At the state water board's request, Clean Water Action set up tours of oil field operations in the state, according to Grinberg, who tagged along in Kern County. Frantz was "instrumental" in planning and leading the tour in Kern, which included forays down unmarked dirt roads to unmapped locations. The trip culminated in a visit to an even bigger group of ponds across the highway from the ones Frantz happened upon back in 2001. The pits, collectively known as the McKittrick 1 & 1-3 facility, sit on 149-acres of land on the west side of Kern County. The facility is run by Valley Water Management Company, a non-profit that manages wastewater disposal for dozens of oil operators in California.
Valley Water Management Company had been dumping wastewater into the McKittrick ponds since the 1950s. The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board estimates that, over the last six decades, the company has discharged some 60 billion gallons of produced water into the ponds. Not surprisingly, levels of potentially harmful chemicals like benzene, boron, toluene, and chlorides in the pond water exceed the state's maximum contaminant levels for drinking water, sometimes by orders of magnitude—benzene levels, for example, were found to be 400 times greater than allowable limits. But water samples also showed that levels of some chemicals, chiefly boron and chloride, also exceed the regional water board's limits for oil field discharges to land. In high enough doses or repeated exposures, such chemicals can cause significant health effects: Toluene for example, can cause headaches, cognitive impairment, or reproductive effects, while benzene is carcinogenic in humans.
Even on the short tour, many groups fell ill within minutes with headaches or nausea, overcome by the acrid smell rising from the water. Grinberg was aghast. "They've just been dumping this nasty stuff straight into the environment," he says. "It's mind-boggling that it's been allowed to happen."
For Clay Rodgers, an assistant executive officer with the Central Valley regional water board who was also on the tour, the sight "confirmed the conclusions we had already come to," he says, to dedicate more resources to the oversight of the ponds. The Central Valley water board began with a review of its pond records. "We went out and inspected every pond we could find, looking at aerial photographs, looking at pond lists that we had developed internally over the years, pond lists that DOGGR [the state oil regulators] had developed," says Dale Harvey, the supervising water resources control engineer at the Central Valley water board. When the two agencies compared lists, they found that the oil regulator's inventory included hundreds more ponds than the water board's. In other words, many of the state's wastewater ponds were operating without a permit and without oversight.
The water board began working to bring those ponds with outdated permits, or none at all, into compliance, prioritizing ponds over higher-quality groundwater. While the water board sifts through data provided by operators in their permit applications, the industry has been allowed to keep using the ponds.
And it's been a slow process. A 2016 analysis from Clean Water Action, which has been monitoring the board's efforts to bring ponds into compliance, found that more than 60 percent of active pits in the state were still either unpermitted or operating with an old permit issued when regulations weren't as stringent. As of July of 2018, there were 541 active wastewater ponds in the Central Valley, and 110 of those were still operating without a permit.
"The Central Valley regional water board has historically been really lax on the oil industry," Grinberg says. And while even the water board's sharpest critics say that it has undergone a cultural shift in recent years, its still up against an industry reluctant to change the status quo. "The industry has such sway in Kern County that anytime the board wants to do anything that limits oil companies' activities, they're met with political resistance," he adds. According to Rodgers, the water boards have "always had a culture of protecting water quality," but were in the past bound by limited resources. "Now those resources are at a level that allows us to put more effort in to it." Rodgers notes that, since 2014, the regional water board has added six staff positions dedicated to overseeing the ponds.
But even ponds with a proven track record of contamination are difficult to shut down—a plume of wastewater beneath the McKittrick 1 and 1-3 ponds, for example, has been migrating underground, inching eastward from the oil field toward high-quality agricultural land at the center of the Central Valley since Frantz first saw steam rising from ponds along Highway 33.
Valley Water Management Company began keeping watch over the McKittrick ponds in 2002 by drilling monitoring wells—which tap into groundwater, allowing operators to sample for contaminants—to track the movement of the mound of wastewater collecting beneath the ponds. Those first wells showed that wastewater had already traveled at least three-quarters of a mile from the facility. In the following years, Valley Water sunk more monitoring wells, which showed even more movement. While the plume has not yet infiltrated any water sources for drinking or irrigation, it's still on the move: Today, the plume of wastewater now extends more than two miles from the McKittrick facility, eastward toward agriculture land in the center of the valley.
But at a hearing in April, Valley Water Management Company disputed the water board's findings about the progression of the plume over the last 16 years, its characteristics, and whether the changes in the water chemistry at the monitoring wells farthest from the facility could have been caused by something other than the plume. The board elected to have Valley Water Management Company conduct more groundwater monitoring and water sampling to find out just what's in the migrating water, and how far and fast it's traveling. In at statement to Pacific Standard, Valley Water Management Company said that it "has been managing oilfield produced water in Kern County for decades in accordance with requirements prescribed in state-issued permits."
The non-profit Fractracker Alliance publishes the below map displaying active and inactive wastewater pits in California. You can see a full-screen map here.
"There was enough discrepancy between the different parties—the information being provided by staff and the information being provided by Valley Water and their consultants—that the board thought that it was prudent to gather more information before moving ahead directly to an order," Harvey says. The board gave Valley Water Management Company a short window to collect the necessary information, and Harvey notes that, since there are no drinking water wells near the facility, no drinking water supplies will be threatened while the data is gathered.
Still, the decision frustrated environmentalists like Frantz, who saw it as a sign that the oil industry is still operating with impunity. "They knew 10 years ago there was a huge wastewater plume," he says.
But the water board may be wary of issuing a cease-and-desist letter that could easily be turned over by the courts. Board Chairman Karl Longley told Bakersfield.com in April that, depending on what the extra monitoring reveals, the extra data could buffer a potential cease-and-desist order from an all-but-guaranteed legal challenge from the oil industry.
The McKittrick ponds take in an average of 2.8 million gallons of wastewater a day. All the produced water has to go somewhere. "Oil operators claim that shutting down ponds such as McKittrick would jam up their operations," Grinberg says. "If polluting groundwater is a necessary part of producing oil in Kern County, then the industry needs to rethink its business model, because that is not an acceptable cost of doing business."
To shut down the ponds, the water board has to have a mountain of irrefutable evidence, and sometimes even that is not enough for the courts in Kern County appear to side against the oil industry. Clean Water Action, for example, sued Valley Water in 2015 for discharges at two facilities in Kern County: Race Track Hill and Fee 34. (The Association of Irritated Residents, Frantz's non-profit, was a co-plaintiff on the suit.)
As much as half of the roughly 500,000 gallons of produced water that Valley Water Management Company takes in every day is disposed of at the Race Track Hill "spray field," where sprinklers run 24 hours per day drenching an empty hillside with produced water. Frantz recalls staring at the green hillside as a boy, standing in stark contrast to its brown surroundings. "It was pretty shocking to realize that was oil field wastewater," he says. In 2015, the water board staff found high levels of salts and boron in the wastewater at the Fee 34 facility and wastewater contaminants in the soil in the spray field at Race Track Hill, which officials worried might be carried down the hillside by rainfall into the Cottonwood Creek, which flows into the Kern River—a major source of water for the city of Bakersfield and the agricultural operations that surround it. "If you want to do anything at all you want to protect the Kern River water," Frantz says. "It's our lifeblood here in Kern County. It's what replenishes our aquifers."
The water board also found that the wastewater the company was discharging at both facilities had percolated down into the groundwater, and was moving southwest underground toward land used for agriculture—including a vineyard just 3,000 feet southwest of the Race Track Hill facility. Many of the crops grown on land next to the facilities were irrigated with groundwater from local wells, according to the water board. "Valley Water's discharge contaminated useable groundwater," Grinberg says. Armed with evidence that both soil and groundwater had been tainted, the water board issued a cease-and-desist order in 2015, giving Valley Water until January 1st, 2018, to get up to code or close. Right before the deadline, Valley Water Management Company asked for an 18-month extension; a judge granted the company 12 months to give six oil operators more time to secure permits for alternative disposal methods.
"They made the argument that if they had to stop dumping it would force these small operators to go out of business," Grinberg says. "The judge basically just ate up the economic argument and [essentially] said, 'Well, we can deal with another year of contamination.'"
This outlook ignores the fact that it's harder to clean-up contaminated water than it is to prevent contamination in the first place—a lesson that some farmers in the Central Valley have had to learn the hard way.
In late July, as more than a dozen wildfires burned across California, a smoky haze settled across the San Joaquin Valley. The temperature was approaching triple digits, but Jay Kroeker didn't mind the heat. Born and raised in the San Joaquin, Kroeker, a partner at his father-in-law's farming operation, Starrh Family Farms, didn't even break a sweat as he stood in the shade of a pistachio tree, plucked a fleshy seed off a branch, and sliced it in half with a pair of shears.
This time of year, Starrh farms hits its roughly 1,500 acres of pistachio trees hard with water to plump up the green interiors so that the growing nuts will crack open their own shells on the branch. "The money nut is the field-split pistachio," Kroeker says. "Those are the ones you get paid the most on."
This particular tree stood on Starrh Family Farms' main ranch on the west side of California's Kern County, in a stretch of some 6,000 contiguous acres farmed by the Starrhs that straddles the towns of McKittrick and Lost Hills. The almond and pistachio orchards on this part of their property are almost entirely dependent on water deliveries from the California State Water Project, a public works project that shuttles water from the wet, northern part of the state to its parched, southern reaches via the California Aqueduct, as the groundwater beneath the groves is filled with dissolved salts, minerals, and metals at levels that would be unbearable for the trees.
When Fred Starrh's parents first moved their farm and family from Arizona to Kern County in 1935, the valley was a checkerboard of lush, green acres and dry, brown earth. Farms grew up around groundwater resources on the east side of Kern. The Starrhs settled down on a 30-acre ranch in Shafter—just down the road from where Tom Frantz's home sits today—and began farming anything they could to make a living—chickens, potatoes, carrots, alfalfa, cotton. The California Aqueduct, built in the 1960s and financed largely by the agriculture industry, promised to transform the region, providing Central Valley farmers with a steady supply of surface water for the first time and allowing agriculture to flourish on the west side of Kern.
The canal's bounty is split among 29 water agencies. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies water to nearly 20 million people across Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Ventura counties, has an entitlement for two million acre-feet of water a year (an acre-foot is a measurement of the volume of liquid it takes to cover one acre of land with one foot of water); Kern County has an entitlement for one million acre-feet; and another one million acre-feet is divided among the remaining 27 agencies.
For decades, there was plenty of water for everyone. The Metropolitan Water District didn't yet need its entire entitlement, and water was abundant and cheap for farmers who needed it, like the Starrhs. But in dry years, the aqueduct can't always deliver all the water the Starrhs pay for. In 1991, the Starrhs and their neighbors received no water at all from the state project. This year, they received just 35 percent of their state water allotment.
As water became more scarce in recent years, Starrh Family Farms began looking into other options, including blending the state project water with their groundwater to dilute the saltier liquid and make it tolerable to their crops. "Then we found out that it had been polluted," Kroeker says.
Not half a mile west of the Starrh's main ranch, oil operators had, for decades, been dumping wastewater from the Beldridge Oil Field into open, unlined pits. By some estimates, as much as 2.9 billion barrels of produced water had been dumped into ponds adjacent to their land. The Starrhs had long known about the massive ponds. The nearby pits let off plumes of steam and, on hot days, a foul-smelling odor wafted over their orchards.
"It wasn't like we didn't know about it. We had farmed all around it, we even rented land from them," Kroeker says. "We also knew that, whenever there was a surface break on those ponds with that produced water, it would be very harmful. We've seen it burn crops before." But these events were few and far between, and the family believed that the oil operators were monitoring for pollution underground.
In the late '80s, for example, Shell drilled observation wells, which are used to monitor groundwater, on the west side of Starrh Road, the private lane that separates the Starrh's acreage from land owned by the oil industry. "We thought, 'Hey, they're being good stewards, they're being proactive about it'—or that the regulators in charge were making them do it," Kroeker says.
The Starrhs thought that if oilfield products were found in the groundwater, someone would notify them. But the family didn't find out the wastewater had migrated into their groundwater until around 1999, when Aera offered to buy the "pore space" beneath their ranch. "It was explained to us that the pore space is the area between the surface and groundwater—it's the sponge," Kroeker says. The family didn't know why Aera was interested in this underground layer, but they took the company's offer in good faith, offering to rent the land to the oil operator for a fair price. The negotiations soured after Aera representatives told the Starrhs there could be produced water in the pore space beneath their property. The Starrhs got an attorney, Ralph Wegis, involved. Wegis suspected that water from the nearby ponds might be seeping into the Starrh's groundwater, and began an investigation that turned up evidence confirming as much.
In 2001, the Starrh family sued Aera Energy, the operator of the ponds and a limited liability company owned by Shell Oil Company and ExxonMobil, waging a 13-year legal battle against the oil producer. After two jury trials and two appeals, the Starrhs finally settled out of court. In a statement to Pacific Standard, Aera Energy notes that the appeals court found that the Starrh's groundwater was "too salty to use for irrigation of most agricultural crops."
Still, the oil operator says it is moving away from the use of percolation ponds thanks to "improved technology," noting that 97 percent its produced water is recycled as steam for oil production or re-injected underground. "As part of this work, Aera has made extensive efforts to install monitoring wells to better understand groundwater movement," Aera says.
The company says that it now recycles 100 percent of the water produced from its operations on the Belridge oil field. More than a decade ago, Aera's ponds next to the Starrh's ranch were drained, their outlines still visible where the oil-slicked earth was excavated. But the oil industry is still dumping wastewater into hundreds of pits all over the state, and the Starrh's groundwater remains contaminated.
"The damage has been done," Wegis says. "The profits have been made by the people who have done it, and the damage is [the Starrh's] to live with forever."
Five years ago, at the height of the drought, Starrh Farms had to pull up 1,000 acres of almond grove from their main ranch. They bought new plots of land with access to cleaner groundwater and started over, planting new seedlings. But it takes years for almond trees to begin bearing a crop, so the Starrhs haven't yet seen a return on that investment. "We have just as much anger for the judicial and regulatory systems as for the oil companies," Kroeker says, driving down Starrh Road past a huge swath of acreage that's still covered with the gnarled, gray skeletons of uprooted trees, still waiting to become wood chips. "They failed us," he says, "they failed Kern County, they failed the citizens of California. This is their drinking water."