Conservationists are calling on California to shut down injection wells after a scathing San Francisco Chronicle report found the state has been letting oil companies drill and dump in protected, drinkable water sources amid a historic drought.
"Put simply, California regulators are not up to the task of managing safe wastewater disposal and cede residents' safety and health to oil and gas production," Dan Jacobson, state director for lobbying group Environment California, said in a statement sent to The Huffington Post. "Preserving and protecting California's water and farms is not something to take lightly."
According to the Chronicle's review of state data, since 1983 California's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources has been allowing oil companies to dispose of produced water -- leftover water from the drilling process that is contaminated with oil, brine and other chemicals -- by pumping into the earth through wastewater injection wells that reach into the state's aquifers. Tainted water has been pumped through 171 wells in aquifers suitable for drinking and irrigation, 253 wells in saltier aquifers that could be usable with more rigorous treatment, and 40 wells in aquifers for which there is no water quality data.
Those groundwater-rich aquifers, the Chronicle reported, are considered protected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is giving the state until Friday to determine how it will address the problem and prevent its recurrence.
State officials say they haven't found any sign of contamination at drinking water wells also located at the aquifers, but the EPA and the State Water Resources Control Board are investigating on their own whether drinking water supplies have been put at risk. Conservationists are now calling on the state to shut down the injection wells immediately and issue a moratorium on any oil and gas activities that produce toxic water.
The Chronicle reports some blame lies in record-keeping and multiple conflicting versions of the documents outlining which aquifers should be protected.
Jason Marshall, chief deputy director of the California Department of Conservation that oversees the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, told HuffPost that they are evaluating each injection well on a case-by-case basis and that they already shut down eleven wells that posed a threat to the water supply in July.
"What we're doing right now is coming back and making sure we apply a more rigorous standard and getting it right," he said.
Most of the injection wells under scrutiny are in the Central Valley, the heart of the state's agriculture industry, where, unlike in urban communities, residents rely on private groundwater wells for much of their water supply. As California suffers through its fourth year of drought, those supplies have become increasingly strained, at one point leaving one Central Valley community relying on bottled water.
As surface water sources dry up in drought, groundwater from these aquifers has become an incredibly important source for the region's farmers, who produce nearly half the country's fruits, vegetables and nuts. A report out of the University of California, Davis last summer found that the state's farmers are pumping a whopping 62 percent more groundwater than usual. The farmers' total groundwater use by the end of 2014, the researchers predicted, would be enough cover Rhode Island in 17 feet of water.
"We need to make sure we are keeping good groundwater supplies and have it available in dry years so that existing wells will work during a drought," UC Davis professor and Center for Watershed Sciences Director Jay Lund told HuffPost in August. If groundwater supplies turn out to have been jeopardized by drilling, farmers could be in serious trouble.
Some claim those injection wells have already done damage. Mike Hopkins, managing partner of Palla Farms near Bakesfield, sued four oil companies in September after he found that they had been injecting wastewater near his orchard, a practice he claims contaminated the groundwater he used with salt and boron and forced him to rip out 3,500 dying cherry trees.
This story has been updated to include comments from the California Department of Conservation.