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Delta Flows: September 18, 2013

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“Endless money forms the sinews of war.”
             – Marcus Tullius Cicero

Mixing oil and water

The end-of-session approval by the legislature of SB 4, Senator Pavley’s watered-down (sorry) attempt to regulate fracking that is now going to the Governor for his promised signature, made us curious about the connection between water exported from the Delta and gas/oil extraction.

This is particularly interesting because all that irrigated arid land in the southern San Joaquin Valley is sitting on top of a vast basin of potential fuel, including the Monterey Shale that oil producers have their eyes on.

In 2011, the online magazine Orion explored this subject in an article titled “The Colonization of Kern County,” by Jeremy Miller. Although this article is several years old, we’re summarizing it here because we think it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the other major economic player in the southern San Joaquin Valley in addition to Big Ag: Big Oil. Here are some of the points Miller makes:

Oil has been a major economic driver in Kern County for over a century. The crude there – “heavy oil – doesn’t flow easily, so oil companies have turned to “steamflooding” to reduce the oil’s viscosity and push it toward horizontal well bores underground, from which it can be pumped to the surface. Steamflooding is NOT the same as hydraulic fracturing – “fracking” – and it has been going on since at least the 1960s.

Miller reports that “At the height of California oil production in 1985, oil companies in Kern County pumped 1.1 billion barrels of water underground to extract 256 million barrels of oil – a ratio of roughly four and a half barrels of water for every barrel of oil. In 2008, Kern producers injected nearly 1.3 billion barrels of water to extract 162 million barrels of oil – a ratio of nearly eight barrels of water for every barrel of oil produced.”

According to Miller, Kern County’s oil fields produce one in every twelve barrels of oil produced in the U.S. But a lot of the water for steamflooding comes from the same source that provides water for farming: the state and federal water projects. (The late Bruce Tokars would have called that “salmon water.”) Oil companies call the fresh water that they buy “makeup water.” No one is keeping track of how much State Water Project Water goes for “makeup water” because, according to a Department of Water Resources spokesperson, “Once we deliver the water through the aqueduct to the local agencies it’s their business what they do with it.”

However, Miller is able to report that the West Kern Water District, a member of the Kern County Water Agency, delivers about 26,000 acre feet of water to oil companies annually. This isn’t a large percentage of the Kern County Water Agency’s SWP allocation of about a million acre feet a year. But unlike irrigators, the oil companies have contracts that guarantee them water, whatever export cutbacks other users face. Says Miller, “the West Kern Water District’s willingness to honor these speculative water contracts goes a long way to explain the drought-resistant nature of Kern County oil production.”

Oil extraction generates billions of gallons of “produced water” annually. Produced water is a nasty mixture of salts, residual oil, and heavy metals. Says Miller, “The senescent oil fields of Kern County now cough up roughly nine barrels of polluted water for every barrel of sludgy oil they produce.”

(Let’s see: That’s eight barrels of fresh “makeup” water in, nine barrels of polluted “produced” water out, just to get one barrel of oil?)

The oil companies themselves can’t reuse produced water, and it costs them much more to clean it than to buy clean water on the open market. They have resorted to various cheap methods of disposing of it, including pumping it underground or leaving it in unlined waste pits or ditches and evaporation ponds. In one case, boron from an evaporation pond of production water polluted the aquifer a farmer was using to irrigate his orchards, killing his trees. (A Kern County jury awarded him $8.5 million in damages from the oil company responsible, but he will need millions of dollars more to flush the pollutants out of his soil. And of course, we know he will want a lot of fresh water to do the flushing.)

Is it likely that none of this contamination is making its way into someone’s drinking water? The San Joaquin Valley’s rural poor already struggle to afford the costs of treating groundwater contaminated with nitrates and arsenic. And expanded oil production could actually increase the contaminated groundwater sites surrounding these communities, increasing their needs for exported water.

The evaporation pits also contribute greenhouse gases to the southern San Joaquin Valley’s already badly-polluted air. The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board’s Fresno office doesn’t know how many ponds there are because the office is understaffed.

So what does all this mean for the Delta? First of all, if water is scarce, oil companies will always be able to outbid agricultural contractors. But if irrigators are then forced to further overdraft aquifers to continue to farm the arid land, the pressure to sustain agriculture in this region by shifting water from the north can only intensify.

Even refineries, like the Chevron refineries in Richmond (in the north state) and El Segundo (in the south state), require water to operate. They recycle their water, but the higher quality it is to start with, the less it costs for them to recycle it.

And no one doubts that oil companies have the money and influence to get as much water as they want for existing or expanded operations anywhere in California.

Defending the indefensible

Resources Secretary John Laird used a letter to San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) to explain what’s wrong with the 3000 cfs “portfolio plan” proposed by NRDC and some another environmental and business interests as an alternative to the Peripheral Tunnels.

We like the first sentence of this letter, in which he says that California stands “at a precipice not reached in more than 40 years.”

Laird then proceeds to plunge over that precipice clutching a deeply-flawed analysis of the portfolio plan. We won’t go into the details here, but will refer readers to the response by NRDC’s Kate Poole.

Laird’s analysis and others being used to sell the Bay Delta Conservation Plan to Southern California ratepayers rely heavily on threats of levee failures due to earthquakes and floods, with accompanying disruptions in freshwater supplies that, readers are told, could last years.

Nothing is quite as persistent as a mistaken idea, and it doesn’t seem to matter how many times it is pointed out that active faults are many miles away from the Delta; that Delta levees have never failed from earthquakes on those faults; that under any disaster scenario the Delta is most likely to fill up with freshwater from rain or river flows, not with saltwater; and that export supplies would most likely resume in a matter of months, not years.

Meanwhile, the danger of this kind of disaster is fractional compared to the 30% likelihood of a drought that will make the Peripheral Tunnels useless.

The portfolio plan advocates increased flows of freshwater from the Delta, reduced exports, and greater investment in local infrastructure projects and conservation to reduce reliance on the Delta. Restore the Delta agrees with all those goals, and we don’t think we need even a 3000 cfs tunnel to achieve them.

Is this the best we can do for fish?

Over a decade ago, under the CALFED Record of Decision, export contractors agreed to pay for modern fish screens at the project pumps in the South Delta. It never happened. What we have instead is a system where louvers create turbulence that encourages fish, including endangered species such as salmon and Delta smelt, to avoid the pumps. Problem is, the louvers have to be removed for cleaning, during which an already inadequate strategy for diverting fish becomes totally useless.

Now, the Sacramento Bee reports that for a mere $4.3 million, the Bureau of Reclamation will be paying a contractor to install self-cleaning louvers. The assumption is that this will save more fish.

Of course, the fish will still be diverted by the louvers to enter a system of tanks, be counted, be put in tanker trucks, and returned to the Delta – a handling and transportation process that many of them do not survive. This process is referred to as “salvage.”

As a euphemism for killing fish, “salvage” belongs right up there with “take.”
But thank goodness we will have these self-cleaning louvers in place, since BDCP plans to continue to export water from the South Delta 51% of the time, even if they build their Peripheral Tunnels.

A look at adverse impacts that BDCP is ignoring

The North Delta Water Agency is holding a special informational meeting on Wednesday, October 2 on the subject of “BDCP Conditional Mitigation – Is It Enough?” Among matters on the agenda: impacts of tunnel construction on domestic water supplies; various adverse effects of pile driving; potential crop damage caused by seepage from adjacent tidal habitat or other drainage issues; and impact of loss of local intakes in the Cache Slough Complex.

Although this meeting specifically targets North Delta residents, Restore the Delta is encouraging people from throughout the Delta to attend because the discussion will help everyone prepare to comment on the public draft of the BDCP EIR.

The meeting will be held at the Courtland Auditorium from 6-8 p.m. Here’s the flyer.

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