Chevron’s oil on troubled waters

If you take your kids to the beach this summer, expect a gritty ride home. California has turned off most of the showers that people use at state beaches to clean the sand off their kids before the long ride home. Then, of course, you get to clean the sand out of your car. All this aggravation saves about 18 million gallons of water a year, according to the state.

In a drought like this one, it makes sense to conserve as much water as possible, wherever we can. So you would think we would be trying to stop some big water users too. Like Chevron. This mega-corporation sells 21 million gallons of treated polluted water a day to the Cawelo Water District, which, according to the Los Angeles Times, provides water to 90 Kern County farmers.

Where Chevron gets the water, reports do not say, but the water they sell to the farmers comes from its oil fields. Drillers force a slush of chemical-laced water into the ground to extract oil and gas. Then, after a skimming and filtration process, the water moves into settling ponds and, after some time, it goes to the water district and then to farmers.

Tests of this irrigation water by an advocacy group turned up the presence of the potent industrial solvents methylene chloride and acetone, along with benzene, a known carcinogen. Does this stuff – as well as the chemicals the company acknowledged that it doesn’t test for – get into the food chain? No one knows. One laboratory spokesperson said, “I wouldn’t necessarily panic, but I would certainly think I would rather not have that.”

Allowing the oil companies to continue drilling by using and polluting vast amounts of water that they then sell for agricultural uses doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially in this time of drought. Much of Chevron’s 21 million gallons of recycled water presumably was once 21 million gallons of fresh water that could have been used by Bakersfield families. An acre foot (AF) of water is 326,000 gallons, which is about enough for two families for a year. At a minimum, Chevron’s Cawelo Water District sales come to 64.4 AF every single day, and that’s just from one oil company’s output of treated water.

Speaking of agriculture, that’s another area in which we can save big on water. In a drought like this one, the state could curtail water deliveries to the largest crops subsidized by the federal government. In California the big five are cotton, rice, wheat, livestock feed and corn. Only 10 percent of this state’s farmers receive subsidies, meaning that 90 percent of growers receive no subsidies whatsoever. Of the one in 10 who get subsidies, only 10 percent receive more than half of all the money. Meanwhile crops representing half the value of all California grown products get no subsidy, while cotton and rice take 44 per cent of the money even though they represent just three per cent of all agricultural production in this state.

Yet they are big water users. For example, 15 per cent of all water in California, goes to grow alfalfa for cattle. That’s five million AF a year, and another three million AF goes to forage for beef. That boils down to one pound of animal protein using 100 times more water than one pound of grain protein. Think about that next time you drive in for a Whopper.

But here’s the kicker: Much of the cotton and rice receiving those big subsidies is not consumed domestically. A vast amount of these and other products is exported. At least 40 percent of the rice California grows is shipped to Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Turkey. And an increasing amount goes to China. We export four million metric tons of alfalfa, which is not subsidized in California, that takes 100 billion gallons of water to grow. We ship 90 percent of the state’s cotton overseas, and it takes 2.5 AF per acre to grow it. Maybe not so good.

The profits from these crops aren’t so big either. The real money is in the pistachios we export to the world, as well as the almonds, the citrus, the fresh fruits and vegetables. That’s where the high margins get made, which is why big crop subsidies only keep us growing stuff we do not need and do not use, all requiring an inordinate amount of a substance essential to human life.

I am sure some experts will say that water rights trump all others. But we live in desperate conditions. This is an emergency. If we cannot stop superfluous oil drilling and watering big crops we don’t use – and certainly don’t need to export – when can we say No to the power of Big Ag and Big Oil? Think about that the next time you are driving back from the beach and the kids are whining in the back seat because they couldn’t wash the sand off.

Reprinted, along with photo, by kind permission of the author and Capital & Main. The original publication may be found here.

Rev. Jim Conn is the founding minister of the Church in Ocean Park and served on the Santa Monica City Council and as that city’s mayor. He helped found Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, Los Angeles, and was its second chair, and was a founder of Santa Monica’s renter’s rights campaign.


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Rev. Jim Conn
Rev. Jim Conn

Rev. Jim Conn is the founding minister of the Church in Ocean Park and served on the Santa Monica City Council and as that city's mayor. He helped found Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, Los Angeles, and was a founder of Santa Monica's renter's rights campaign. Rev. Conn is a regular contributor to Capital & Main.

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