Outsmarting the Drought – from the Sacramento Bee

This unique mix of manure, compost and mulch at the base of a grape vine retains water for months – even through a drought. The Oregon House vineyard has been watered just twice in four years. Credit - Randy Pench, Sacramento Bee.

This unique mix of manure, compost and mulch at the base of a grape vine retains water for months – even through a drought. This Oregon House vineyard has been watered just twice in four years.
Credit – Randy Pench, Sacramento Bee.

By Elaine Corn

The fear of scarce water is really the fear of scarce food.

In its third year, the drought has already forced California growers to leave 800,000 farm acres unplanted this year, says Dave Kranz of the California Farm Bureau. The resulting drop in food production comes with the unavoidable coefficient of higher prices, particularly for lettuce, avocados, broccoli, grapes, tomatoes, melons, peppers, berries and corn.

Maybe shoppers will balk at, say, a $2.50 head of lettuce. Maybe we’ll put a stake in the heart of local food movements by filling in with cheaper produce from Florida, Texas and Mexico.

But what if you could grow food with less water or even no water?

If you want to outwit a drought, ask an Israeli.

Shahar Caspi tends acres of gardens, fruit trees and a commercial vineyard in the hamlet of Oregon House in the foothills between Marysville and Grass Valley. His job since 2012 has been raising food year round for his community and bringing perfect wine grapes to harvest – all without tilling, and with little to zero added water.

He’s done it before. On a dizzy ride across switchbacks and valley flats, in an area that rises and tumbles from 2,300 to 1,800 feet and back again over forested canyons and gentle slopes, Caspi gives me a tour. He has a distinctly Israeli flourish behind the wheel. When he talks to people in the back seat, he takes his eyes off the road to look at them, even as he navigates a hairpin turn.

He passes a grove of olive trees neglected for 10 years that produced no olives. But after a year on the Caspi method – the equivalent of Ensure for the earth – the trees delivered 40 pounds of olives.

Next we drove between two fields, one side brown, ragged and parched, the other a Caspi no-water showcase – grape vines in bud break, the ground beneath them rich, a natural ground cover green as jade. “Mulch with shredded roots,” he says exuberantly, eyes off the road. “Very simple!”

At a sunny glade, another concept preps cherry trees. He walks us past huge square holes he flushed with water and allowed to drain. The holes were filled with Caspi’s mulch, manure and compost, then a tree. “They won’t need water for many, many months.”

Back in the greenhouse next to his mountaintop home, Caspi laid manure on the rock-hard dirt floor, and on purpose didn’t till the soil underneath. He stuck chard seedlings directly into the manure. “They flourished immediately,” Caspi says. “The roots went sideways into a huge mass of roots. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

And despite no rainfall the first four months of his second season of raising food for his neighbors,water usage dropped 30 percent and yields increased.

How does he do it?

The same way a dietitian would bulk up a wasting patient with lots of calories and nutrients. Except Caspi is like a soil chef, mixing fermented manure and compost in varying proportions “to re-establish a whole layer of soil that holds water” like a subterranean sponge.

The technique is reminiscent of Rudolf Steiner’s bio-dynamics, which treats the farm as a holistic entity. But considering Caspi’s past and combining it with an uncertain future of water in California, a goal of using zero water to grow food is understandable.

Caspi grew up inculcated with respect for water. In Israel, kids get “Don’t Waste A Drop” stickers in school that go on the family fridge. “It’s so much in our blood to save water,” he says. “We had a cartoon that showed the whole family showering together under a few drops of water.”

Modern drip irrigation with emitters was an idea out of Israel. So is placing black plastic sheeting over soil to contain moisture. Israel leads the world in recycling 80 percent of its water. Its latest technology collects dew.

In California, some growers are on top of the drought. A report from the California Farm Water Coalition says that in the San Joaquin Valley, $2.2 billion was invested in drip irrigation on 1.8 million acres. But for every conserver using soil probes, infrared photography and improved weather forecasting, we have devourers of resources.

“Here you flood fields,” Caspi says. “An Israeli would say, ‘Are you kidding?’ It’s the mentality of abundance, that it’s going to last forever.”

In 2008, winemaker Gideon Beinstock hired Caspi to be vineyard manager at Renaissance Vineyard and Winery in Oregon House. With Caspi’s degree in plant sciences from The Hebrew University and years of experience in water strategy in Israel, his mission was to convert 45 acres of conventionally cultivated vineyard to fully bio-dynamic viticulture. Production costs went down by 12 percent. Yields increased between 3 percent and 7 percent.

When Beinstock left Renaissance to found Clos Saron Vineyard and Winery a few miles away, he took Caspi with him. Clos Saron is so low-tech that grapes are harvested by touch. Its wine goes mostly to pricey restaurants in New York City. Caspi’s technique is most evident here. The base of each vine is encircled with a thick dressing of Caspi’s gourmet manure-compost-mulch. The application is repeated every year. In the last four years, the vineyard has been watered only twice.

Beyond his work at the vineyard, Caspi tends the gardens of about 50 “member” neighbors in and around Oregon House. Because this is a rural community, Caspi can put a sign on the road saying “manure needed,” and loads are brought to him for fermenting. The finished manure plus organic matter from garden waste, wood ash and olive paste all come from within a 10-mile radius. It returns to the members in the form of Caspi’s magical soil smoothie that retains water and nourishes roots.

On one day, Caspi might sow one member’s five acres with donated wheat berries, then low-gear the van up a twisted drive to check on what amounts to a large backyard row garden. When a field’s grass grows tall, he brings in a flock of another member’s sheep to act as weed eaters.

The reward? Every Wednesday, all year, each member gets a box of Caspi’s art – intensely flavored fruits and vegetables from one another’s property. A recent week brought strawberries, chard, cabbage, parsley, cilantro, beets, carrots and spinach. “And this is the lowest point of the year,” Caspi points out. This is the purest form of community-supported agriculture, known as CSA. But this version combines aggressive water conservation with food security. It gives more to the land than it takes.

If this sounds too fringey, it’s something to consider as more cities hook up homes to water meters. What Caspi does on a large scale can be done by city dwellers. “In your own neighborhood, yes, you can do this,” he says.

In the garden, take a load off and don’t till. Then follow Caspi’s instructions.

Find a source of manure and compost. Lay a thick layer, up to 4 inches, on the ground and plant right into it. Apply plant by plant rather than over the entire garden. For tomatoes, dig a deep hole, water the hole until the water drains, fill the hole with a mix of chicken manure and compost, then a tomato seedling. Add a bit more nitrogen in the form of half a teaspoon of chicken manure when you dig the hole. Water once more.

How long can you go without added water? A week? A month? Water only if lack of moisture is detected by sticking a finger into the ground. “The first year is hardest,” Caspi says. “Don’t give up. If you fail, you try again.”

As to your own sense of food security, you can have a community-supported agriculture system on your street. “One person grows the potatoes, someone else grows the beans, and another person grows herbs,” Caspi explains. Everyone adds to the pile tended by the neighborhood compost geek. In a few years, the soil will be so absorptive it will gulp winter rainwater and retain it through summer.

Without access to the livestock that live near Caspi, there might be a cost for store-bought manure, unless you have a friend with a horse, a cow or chickens. When a crop is ready, deliveries begin in staggered availability.

With wells already stressed in the Sierra foothills, Caspi remains an Israeli at heart, tinkering for extra droplets of water in what he presumes is a terminal drought.

“The plant takes only what it needs,” Caspi says. “This is how it works in nature. If you don’t need it, why do you want to take it?”

To protect ourselves from food shortages and to buffer California’s agricultural economy, we all should regard any adjustments that allow us to grow food with less water as permanent.


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California’s Thirsting Farmland – from the New York Times

Todd Allen walks his parched farm, which usually grows melons and wheat. Credit Peter DaSilva for The New York Times

By Stephanie Strom

This summer, Todd Allen’s only crop will be Pima cotton. He and his brother, Joel, usually also grow cantaloupes and, later in the season, winter wheat on about 600 acres or so. But this year, they and hundreds of others will get no water from the reservoirs that sustain farming in the Central Valley, where much of the nation’s fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables are grown.Mr. Allen says he will give his cotton crop just “one shot of water when it gets to a certain height.” So they will forgo melons. And a question mark hangs over winter wheat.

Heading into the third year of a prolonged drought, the Allens are among the many California farmers forced to make dire choices that could leave as much as 800,000 acres, or about 7 percent of the state’s cropland, fallow. While some think that estimate may be inflated so early in the planting season, the consensus is that drier and drier seasons are on the horizon. A recent report on prospective planting from the federal Department of Agriculture forecast a 20 percent decline in California’s rice crop and a 35 percent decline in cotton this year from last year’s crop. The decisions by farmers like the Allens will translate directly into higher prices at the grocery store.

Anywhere between one-third and one-half of the nation’s fruits and vegetables are grown in California, meaning Americans are facing higher prices on melons, broccoli, baby greens, almonds and other popular crops.

Last year, when growers struggled with low water allocations from the state’s two largest water systems, the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, vegetable prices were 3 percent higher and fruits cost 2 percent more, according to the agricultural department. It expects similar price increases this year.

And while this is not the state’s worst drought on record (that was in the 1920s), there are greater demands today on what water there is. A booming population and a sharp increase in lucrative crops like berries and nuts that require more water strain the system. In addition, environmental laws put into effect after the last major drought, in the 1970s, to protect fish and wildlife habitats have reduced the amount of water going to farmers.

All told, more than three million acres of the nine million acres of irrigated farmland in the state will get no surface water this year other than rain, which has been scarce.

“So while we may have more water than we did in other droughts, it has to stretch further,” said Jay Lund, an engineering professor specializing in water resources and environmental planning and management at the University of California, Davis. He said this drought will rank somewhere between the third- to the sixth-worst on record. Rain did arrive at the end of last month, brightening fields and pastures along the coast and in the Central Valley and adding a few inches to the state’s depleted reservoirs.

“It’s been good for vegetation and kept the dust down, but it’s not enough to have a serious impact on our overall situation,” said Robert Roach, assistant commissioner of agriculture in Monterey County.

Farmers rely on a variety of sources depending on the location of their fields. In the Central Valley, most farmers contract to receive a specified amount of water from either the federal Central Valley Project or the State Water Project. But in drought years like this one, they may not receive a full allotment or even any water at all.

The state has already pledged $687 million to address the drought, with the federal government committing an additional $200 million. But much of that money will be used to improve the infrastructure for water collection and distribution — it cannot make rain. And on April 1, state and federal water and environmental officials announced that they would start pumping to capture some of the rain that had fallen recently in reservoirs, an attempt to respond to widespread criticism that environmental regulations aimed at protecting habitats and fish like salmon and smelt were allowing water to flow into the Pacific.

But officials said any captured water would most likely be put in storage in anticipation of a dry 2015. “Those that have a zero allocation applied to them right now, even if we have an improvement in the hydrology here in the near future, we don’t see that those numbers would go off zero,” said David Murillo, regional director of the United States Bureau of Reclamation.

Tensions have been high over the water allocations to farmers, with signs reading “Congress created this dust bowl” and “Politicians are responsible for the drought” lining Interstate 5 through the heart of the Central Valley.

“The fish are more important than our farms,” said Stephen F. Patricio, president of Westside Produce, which processes and markets melons.

The scarcity of water is driving up the price week to week. One grower who sold extra water for $1,500 an acre-foot about a month ago was offered $2,500 more recently. (An acre-foot is the amount it takes to cover one acre of ground a foot deep in water, or 325,851 gallons). “This sort of thing is causing some hard feelings because some of the families that have farmed here forever can’t afford to buy water while investors without any real ties to the land are driving up the price,” Mr. Patricio said.

Several insurance and pension funds have snapped up land in the Central and Pajaro Valleys and replaced traditional crops like spinach, melons and asparagus with ones requiring more water, like avocados, nuts and berries, which command premium prices thanks to soaring demand from baby boomers and the international market. The region produces twice as many almonds, roughly two billion pounds, as it did in 2006.

The boom in nut trees, water managers in the valleys say, has strained the state’s water resources even further. Brian Lockwood, senior hydrologist at the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency, pointed to the strawberry fields that have largely displaced the apple orchards that used to be major producers in the Pajaro Valley.

“Apples need about a half acre-foot of water per acre, whereas strawberries take two or more acre-feet,” Mr. Lockwood said. “You can’t blame growers for seeking better-paying crops, but it has quadrupled water use per acreThus, strawberry farmers like Miguel Ramos are working to use water “reclaimed” from municipal waste water for their plants, which are just beginning to produce fruit. Mr. Ramos also is experimenting with growing strawberry plants in a medium derived from coconut fiber, which requires much less water.

Nut farmers defend their use of water, pointing out that they have a decades-long investment. “I am not a water hog,” said Ron Fisher, founder and chief executive of the Fisher Nut Company in Modesto, one of the 10 largest nut businesses in the country.

He will get three-quarters of his normal allotment from a water district, plus more from a contract he bought four years ago. “I lost money on it in the first two years, but last year and this year, it’s paying off,” Mr. Fisher said.He also has wells on the 1,000 acres of almond trees he owns. The company also processes and markets nuts from other growers. The well water, however, is higher in sodium and boron than is ideal. The trees “will tolerate it, but we may see some stunting and reduction in productivity,” he said.

Applications to drill new, deeper wells have increased tremendously, according to water district managers. But wells, which can cost from $500,000 to $1 million to drill, are only a stopgap measure, as Greg Beccio, owner of Happy Boy Farms, an organic business, knows.Last year, he got a reduced allocation of water from the Chowchilla Water District, which supplies several parcels he farms, so he began relying more heavily on wells. One, however, ran dry, in part because his neighbors were punching deeper wells into the ground. A crop of butternut squash on 15 acres yielded only half what it should have, he said.

This year, he plans instead to plant some tomatoes, melons and other crops in the Pajaro, which is a little less dry.

But he will still rely heavily on his wells — which means higher expenses. “Each well has its own P.G. & E. bill, remember,” Rod Braga, chief executive of Braga Fresh Family Farms, said, referring to Pacific Gas & Electric company.

Braga is a large grower of crops traditional to the Salinas Valley like celery, spinach, broccoli and iceberg lettuce, as well as things like chard, kale and beets. All of its water comes from wells that are fed by aquifers, which in turn are fed by two reservoirs that are county projects.

Those reservoirs, which rely on rainwater and snow melt for replenishment, were depleted completely last year, and they are not fully recharged now. And so, Mr. Braga has noticed that his well level has dropped a bit. “We rely on rainwater and two little reservoirs,” he said. “This year, we’re doing all right, but next year is going to be bleak.”

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Food waste-to-energy converter introduced at UC Davis

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State Drought Relief Program to Provide Food to Hard-Hit Communities – from the California Department of Social Services

Food bankAs extreme drought continues to grip much of the state, the California Department of Social Services has announced that food banks in 24 drought-affected counties will be receiving shipments of food assistance. The first $5.1 million in food assistance will begin to hit food bank shelves in early May, delivered directly to drought-impacted communities.

The announcement represents the first wave of drought-related food assistance to be delivered to communities throughout California this year. The $687 million emergency drought legislation, signed by Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. last month, included $25 million in food assistance for the counties most impacted by the drought.

Shipments will be sent to counties where the unemployment rate is higher than the 2013 statewide average, and have a higher share of agricultural workers than the state as a whole. These counties include: Amador, Butte, Colusa, Fresno, Glenn, Kern, Kings, Lake, Lassen, Madera, Merced, Modoc, Monterey, San Benito, San Joaquin, Santa Cruz, Sierra, Siskiyou, Stanislaus, Sutter, Tehama, Tulare, Yolo and Yuba. A study on effects of the drought by the University of California, Davis has been initiated and, once completed, will help refine the locations of future food assistance distributions.

In addition to drought-related food assistance, families and individuals who are expecting long-term impacts of the drought will be offered information and assistance in applying for the CalFresh Program. CalFresh is a federal program designed to help families put healthy and nutritious food on the table.

Governor Brown has called on all Californians to reduce their water use by 20 percent –visit SaveOurH2O.org for ideas about how to conserve, and visit Drought.CA.Gov to learn more about how California is dealing with the effects of the drought.

Link to news release.

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California food banks to benefit from California Grown promotion

CA Grown Donate 2California’s agricultural community has long been a champion of our state’s food banks. The folks over at California Grown have taken a thoroughly modern approach to supporting California food banks: snap a “selfie” and they’ll donate a pound of food.

Participants must take a photograph of the CA Grown logo or anything grown or produced in California (think flowers, wine, apples, milk, beef, etc.) and use #cagrown in the post on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook. CA Grown will keep track of the posts from now through the end of October.

See the CA Grown blog for more about this inspiring program.


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CDFA Press Release – Leading the Way on Specialty Crops: California Garners More Than $19 Million from Federal Block Grant Program

SACRAMENTO, April 17, 2014 – The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced today that California has been allocated $19.76 million in funding for the 2014 Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (SCBGP). The agency awarded approximately $66 million nationwide for projects that help support growers of specialty crops through research, market development, environmental stewardship and more.

 The Specialty Crop Block Grant Program is designed to enhance the markets for specialty crops like fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture and nursery crops, including floriculture.

 “California’s leadership in the production and development of specialty crops is due in large part to the innovative nature of our growers,” said CDFA Secretary Karen Ross. “The research, market development and other projects supported by this partnership with USDA help keep our farmers on the cusp of innovations from food safety to stewardship, from identifying niche markets to expanding international exports.”

 Today’s announcement marks the beginning of the 2014 grant cycle. In 2013, CDFA was awarded approximately $18 million and solicited competitive proposals for projects including market enhancement, agriculture education, nutrition, and research. The 64 projects funded under the 2013 SCBGP reflect the diversity of California’s specialty crops across the state, including: creating economic opportunities for specialty crop producers through market development activities that focus on local, regional, or international markets; development of effective agritourism associations to enhance rural tourism and promote specialty crops; food safety benefits and training programs; growing community food systems in underserved neighborhoods; online irrigation nitrogen management tool for cool season vegetables; and research to mitigate impacts of invasive pests.

 In addition, CDFA partnered with the Center for Produce Safety in the evaluation and recommendation of food safety related projects. These projects represent an ongoing effort to minimize outbreaks by proactive research.

 Information about the program, including California’s 2013 projects, is available online at www.cdfa.ca.gov/grants. Stay tuned for future announcements regarding the development and submission of proposals for the grant funds announced today. The USDA announcement, including award amounts by state, is available online at http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentid=2014/04/0064.xml&contentidonly=true.


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From CCOF: Farm Aid, CCOF and Community Alliance with Family Farmers Offer Drought Assistance

California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) has announced the availability of special hardship funds for certified organic producers who are having a hard time making ends meet this spring due to damage caused by drought.

Thanks to a special grant from Farm Aid, CCOF is joining with Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) to make these funds available to growers affected by the drought. CCOF chapters across the state are also contributing to the emergency drought fund to increase the number of families that can be helped through this program.

CCOF will offer drought disaster grants to certified organic farmers while CAFF will offer the grants to family farmers who use sustainable agriculture practices. The CCOF funds are available to any certified organic producer, not only those certified by CCOF.

Each eligible producer may apply for a $500 grant to offset drought impacts on their families. CCOF requirements for eligibility include:

  • Organic certified operation currently in good standing
  • Located in a county designated a drought disaster area by USDA (not limited to California)
  • Experiencing severe financial hardship resulting from the drought
  • Have not received federal assistance for the same loss

Preference will be given to farms that match the federal definition of a small family farm (those that have gross annual sales less than $250,000).

To qualify for emergency funds, completely fill out an application form and send to CCOF by April 30. Please call the CCOF office for an application or download one at www.ccof.org/drought-disaster-assistance. CCOF expects to release funds by the end of May.

In addition to offering this direct drought disaster assistance, CCOF supported regulatory measures to ease drought impacts on California livestock producers and is facilitating access (for livestock feed) to organic crop wastes or culls. A list of drought resources for organic producers is available at www.ccof.org/drought-resources.

For more information, contact CCOF Policy and Outreach Specialist Jane Sooby at (831) 423-2263, ext. 49 or jsooby@ccof.org. Non-organic producers, contact CAFF Water Program Coordinator Kendall Lambert at (510) 832-4625, ext. 13 or kendall@caff.org.


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Sign-up begins for USDA disaster assistance programs restored by Farm Bill

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has announced that eligible farmers and ranchers can now sign up for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) disaster assistance programs restored by passage of the 2014 Farm Bill.

“We implemented these programs in record time and kept our commitment to begin sign-up today,” said Agriculture Secretary Vilsack in a release issued April 15. “To ensure enrollment goes as smoothly as possible, dedicated staff in over 2,000 Farm Service Agency offices across the country are doing everything necessary to help producers that have suffered through two and a half difficult years with no assistance because these programs were awaiting Congressional action.”

Depending on the size and type of farm or ranch operation, eligible producers can enroll in one of four programs administered by the Farm Service Agency. The Livestock Forage Disaster Program (LFP), and the Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP) will provide payments to eligible producers for livestock deaths and grazing losses that have occurred since the expiration of the livestock disaster assistance programs in 2011, and including calendar years 2012, 2013, and 2014. The Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees, and Farm-Raised Fish Program (ELAP) provides emergency assistance to eligible producers of livestock, honeybees and farm-raised fish that have suffered losses because of disease, severe weather, blizzards and wildfires.

Enrollment also begins today for the Tree Assistance Program (TAP), which provides financial assistance to qualifying orchardists and nursery tree growers to replant or rehabilitate trees, bushes and vines damaged by natural disasters.

Producers signing up for these programs are encouraged to contact their local FSA office for information on the types of records needed and to schedule an appointment. Taking these steps in advance will help producers ensure their application moves through the process as quickly as possible.

Supporting documents may include livestock birth records, purchase and transportation receipts, photos and ownership records showing the number and type of livestock lost, documents listing the gallons of water transported to livestock during drought, and more. Crop records may include purchase receipts for eligible trees, bushes, or vines, seed and fertilizer purchases, planting and production records, and documentation of labor and equipment used to plant or remove eligible trees, bushes, or vines.

Producers have three to nine months to apply depending on the program and year of the loss. Details are available from any local FSA office.

For more information, producers may review the 2014 Farm Bill Fact Sheet, and the LIP, LFP, ELAP and TAP fact sheets online, or visit any local FSA office or USDA Service Center.

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Congratulations to Food and Ag Board President Craig McNamara – Agriculturalist of the Year


I wish to offer my congratulations to my colleague and friend Craig McNamara for being named Agriculturalist of the Year by the California State Fair. Craig is a uniquely visionary leader – someone who is highly deserving of this prestigious award.  Beyond his deep commitment as a farmer and as president of the California State Board of Food and Agriculture, Craig has a passion to bring disparate parties together to focus on the big challenges of our time. He has demonstrated his understanding of the need to reach our next generation through the great work of his groundbreaking Center for Land Based Learning in Winters, which connects students to nature and agriculture and, in the process, helps to groom our future farmers and leaders. Again, my heartfelt congratulations to Craig. He’s an agriculturist for all-time.

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California farmers look to oil industry for water – from KQED

By Lauren Sommer

With California’s reservoirs running low, many Central Valley farmers are struggling to keep their trees and crops alive this year.

In the southern San Joaquin Valley, some are getting extra water from an unlikely source: the oil industry.

California is the third largest oil-producing state in the country, extracting roughly 200 million barrels a year. But in the process of getting oil, companies also produce massive volumes of water, found naturally in the same underground formations.

“To produce one barrel of oil, we produce about nine barrels of water,” says Chevron’s Thep Smith, walking around the company’s Kern River oil field, east of Bakersfield. Almost 10,000 pump jacks cover the hills. The field is more than a century old, but is still the second-most productive in the state.

The rock formations that bear oil in California are also full of briny, brackish water, leading to an old saying about oil companies in California: they’re actually water companies that get oil as a byproduct. “This is really a water plant that skims oil,” Smith says.

During this year’s drought, it’s the district’s only reliable supply, since water deliveries from state and federal water projects have been cut completely.

“It’s going to be very tough,” Ansolabehere says. “We’re looking at just making sure the landowners can keep their trees alive this year.”

Other Central Valley water districts are in the same boat right now, which is why Ansolabehere says there’s been a lot of interest in this recycling project.

“Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of phone calls,” he says, “meeting with people that want to do the same type of thing.”

Oil Industry as Water Source, Not Sink

Oil and agriculture have long been neighbors in Kern County. And it hasn’t been lost on farmers that while their water supplies are going dry this year, the industry next door is swimming in billions of gallons.

It’s especially true on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, where many water districts rely almost entirely on tenuous supplies imported from elsewhere in the state.

After the oil is separated, Chevron handles millions of gallons of water a day. The company uses about a quarter of it to enhance oil production, turning the water into steam and injecting it back into the rock formation to boost oil flow.

“The stuff here is really heavy oil,” Smith says, “kind of like molasses. At room temperature, it actually is almost solid.”

After using some for steam, there’s still plenty of water to get rid of. Many companies dispose of it long-term by pumping it back underground, where it’s trapped in rock layers.

From Pump Jacks to Produce

In the only project of its kind in the state, Chevron’s water travels several miles through a 40-inch pipe, until it arrives in a reservoir used by the Cawelo Water District. Chevron provides up to a quarter of the water district’s supply each year, around 26,000 acre-feet.

“The fact that we have this water coming in, it’s a tremendous bonus,” says David Ansolabehere, general manager of the irrigation district, near Bakersfield. “We deliver water to about 45,000 acres, about 95 percent permanent crops which are nut trees, citrus and vineyards,” he says.

The district mixes Chevron’s water with an equal amount of freshwater, until it reaches a quality that works for local orchards.

“We can’t deliver it straight,” Ansolabehere says. “It has too much salt, but we blend it down and then it’s irrigation quality.”

“You have tremendous water resources that are a byproduct of oil production,” says Tupper Hull of the Western States Petroleum Association, an oil industry group.

“It’s very conceivable that in the very near future,” Hull says, “oil production could be a net provider of water for California ag and other purposes, as opposed to a consumer.”

Opponents have criticized the oil industry’s use of water, largely because the controversial oil extraction technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, consumes freshwater. Recycling water would offset that use, but to duplicate Chevron’s project in other parts of the state, the industry would face significant hurdles.

High Water Treatment Costs

“One of the problems they’ve seen at that project is very high arsenic levels in the water,” says Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy group.

Until a few years ago, Chevron released water from the Kern River field into a local creek during the winter, when demand from farmers was low. The water wasn’t diluted and the company was fined by the regional water quality control board for violating limits on arsenic.

“It just shows again that there’s no safe way to deal with the oil and gas wastewater,” Siegel says. “Every single method that has been proposed and used has real risks and health harms associated with it.”

Dealing with contaminants could be even tougher in other oil fields. “The water that’s here at Kern River field is at an almost near freshwater quality,” says Chevron’s Abby Auffant, “and that is different from water elsewhere.”

Water produced in the company’s other fields is significantly saltier and would need to go through a treatment process like reverse osmosis, which adds cost.

“If we were able to identify a cost-effective manner in which to treat the water,” Auffant says, “it’s certainly something that we would be interested in.”

The economic case improves in drought years when water prices are sky-high, but drought economics only last so long.

“Normally the water’s going for $30-40 an acre-foot,” says Ansolabehere. “When it costs you $500 to treat it, there’s not really a market except for years like this and then you can’t get the treatment in place in time to really make any effect. So you have to think a couple years ahead.”

As technology advances and reduces those costs, he adds, it becomes more likely that water recycling projects would come together.

For many, the drought has added new urgency, as a reminder of the state’s limited water resources. “I think as the resource becomes more strained, people look to these other sources as a solution,” says Harry Starkey, general manager of the West Kern Water District, west of Bakersfield.

“That conversation is happening on the west side,” Starkey says. “It’ll be interesting to see if you can get oil companies, that tend to be very private, to engage. Getting those two to partner up in those regards – they’re different classmates. It’s a matter of building trust.”

It’s something many farmers are watching closely, as they face the long, dry summer ahead.


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