As drought ravages the state of California and the once-lush fields wither and dry, farmers are turning to increasingly desperate measures to find nourishment for their thirsty crops. The oil company Chevron has stepped in with a “solution”: to re-sell 21 million gallons of wastewater used to process crude oil back to farmers. One can only imagine how the addition of industrial solvents and other chemicals to the water might alter its quality, with harmful results for both the earth and for the consumers of the crops.
Nobody officially knows what could be in the water, because up until California passed a law mandating testing of water for fracking chemicals, oversight was left to the corporations, who have little incentive to undergo extensive testing. The Los Angeles Times reported that “Until now, government authorities have only required limited testing of recycled irrigation water, checking for naturally occurring toxins such as salts and arsenic, using decades-old monitoring standards. They haven’t screened for the range of chemicals used in modern oil production.”
But in 2010, an environmental nonprofit, Water Defense, have conducted independent testing of recycled irrigation water and found large quantities of acetone and methylene chloride, both of which are toxic to humans. A lead scientist at Water Defense, Scott Smith, made the comparison that “if you were a gas station and were spilling these kinds of chemicals into the water, you would be shut down and fined.” There’s no way to determine what effects these chemicals might have on crops or their consumers, but over 45,000 acres could be contaminated with the toxic chemicals.
Not only does the water contain chemicals toxic to humans, it also contains heavy amounts of salt that can permanently damage the soil and render the ground fallow. It’s assumed that once rain returns to California, the clean water will naturally filter out the salts, but five years into a drought, the National Weather Service’s assessment is bleak; in fact, the drought might even get worse.
Local farmer Tom Frantz would rather “see his trees die than use Chevron wastewater…It’s just not sustainable at all to use salty water, no matter how much you dilute it…. We can farm here a long time, if we’re careful about the salts that we apply..I’ve seen the farms that have saltier groundwater, and they have severe difficulties after 50 years. That’s very low levels of salts that’ll do that.”
As time passes and water grows scarcer in California, more and more industries will desperately turn to untested and questionable methods such as this to keep their livelihoods afloat. It’s a travesty to see a corporation taking advantage of a natural disaster, exploiting those in need, and putting the health of the public at risk just to make a little money.
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Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.