March 28, 2013
Kimberly Rivers, OVN correspondent
Few would dispute that Ojai has its share of water issues. But should the valley expect more water woes from increased oil and gas activity and the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking)?
According to the voluntary reporting site www.fracfocus.org, 13 wells have been fracked in Ventura County since January 2011. Based on the water volume listed for those wells, 3,679,879 gallons of water were used during the franking process. According to the site, that total could include fresh water, produced water and/or recycled water.
Produced water comes up during drilling and has to be separated from the oil or gas. Fracfocus reports that 99.2 percent of the mixture injected underground during fracking is water; the remaining .79 percent is chemicals. That means 29,071 gallons of chemicals, gellants and other components were used in the 13 wells that were voluntarily reported.
Aera Energy — the largest oil producer in Ventura County, according to its website — did not respond by press-time to requests for information about its water sourcing and the quantity of fresh water it has used in drilling operations.
James Hines of the Sierra Club of Ventura County claims industry sources have disclosed that “60 wells have been fracked in Ventura County alone, along the Ventura River and Rincon. Those areas drain to the ocean. And along Sespe Creek,” said Hines. “With the new permits in Upper Ojai and old wells which can be re-drilled, there is nothing to stop them from fracking (in the valley),” he said. “There are plugged and covered wells in the Casitas watershed area.”
Jason Marshall, chief deputy director at the California Department of Conservation (CDC), said that protecting groundwater quality is one of the primary functions of the Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). “The Division protects groundwater by supervising the drilling, operation, maintenance and plugging and abandonment of oil and gas, to ensure they (meet the) state’s strict standards,” Marshall said. “Those standards specifically provide for protection of groundwater resources from hydrocarbon intrusion, and vice-versa.”
When asked how DOGGR ensures that spills or leaks are reported, as is required by law, Marshall said, “No regulatory agency has the resources to watch every operation under its jurisdiction on a 24-7 basis.” He indicated that many levels of government regulate the industry and that “Many groups and individuals who are concerned about the environment also watch the industry’s field operations closely. So there are a lot of eyes in addition to DOGGR’s on statewide oil and gas operations.”
But Jonathan Evans, staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, thinks that’s not enough. “The oil and gas industry has an abysmal record of polluting water resources,” Evans said. “A Kern County farmer, Fred Starrh, has been awarded millions of dollars in damages over oil industry water pollution, and a fracking boom will dramatically increase the risk.”
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a source of groundwater in Fillmore is contaminated with the carcinogen benzene. The EPA has designated it a “superfund site,” and is requiring the current owner, Chevron, to clean the benzene from the water and the excessive amounts of lead from the soil. According to a report on the EPA’s website, the contamination occurred as a result of “(Oil) refinery wastes deposited into unlined waste pits,” from 1920 to 1952. However, the EPA reports that “Drinking water wells have not been impacted by contamination,” even though “10,000 people obtain drinking water … (and) 4,000 acres of agricultural land are irrigated from wells within three miles of the site.” The clean-up of that site is ongoing.
In 2011, according to Los Padres ForestWatch (LPFW), a spill at an oil field released “630 gallons of oil and 25,700 gallons of chemical-laden wastewater” into Four Forks Creek, which feeds Sespe Creek and is located north of Fillmore.
“More than 1,000 cases of water contamination associated with fracking have been documented in other states,” said the CDC’s Evans. “Places like Dimock, Pennsylvania, and Pavillion, Wyoming, had vital groundwater supplies contaminated by oil and gas operations and fracking. Here in California, the EPA has criticized state officials for not doing enough to protect water supplies from oil industry pollution. We shouldn’t allow our scarce water supplies to be polluted with toxic fracking chemicals.”
“The Casitas watershed is one of the most pristine, in terms of water quality of surface water. No other sources compares for quality and price,” said Ron Merckling, water conservation and public affairs manager for Casitas Municipal Water District. “We have 11 industrial customers. A few are oil companies. We sell some water to the city of Ventura, which sells to some oil and gas companies in the area. We have seen no increase in industrial use (of water). It is good news that there is very little impact from oil and gas (operations), including fracking, on Lake Casitas. It is one of the greatest sources of surface water that we all get to enjoy,” said Merckling.
Russ Baggerly, board member of both the Ojai Basin Groundwater Management Agency (OBGMA) and Casitas Municipal Water District (CMWD), said, “Lake Casitas is at 70.8 percent full.” But he doesn’t find that worrisome. “If we go another two years without significant rainfall, that would be a problem. In its history, Lake Casitas has never dropped below 50 percent full. We are still OK. We’re not nervous yet.”
When asked about whether an oil company can use all the water under any property it owns, Baggerly said, “All water in California belongs to the people, held in trust by the state. A property owner has correlative rights to use the water under their property, but cannot use water (in amounts that would decrease) their neighbors’ use,” Baggerly explained. “A neighbor would know right away if their well was being infringed upon.” Baggerly confirmed the OBGMA has seen no increase in demand from industrial water users.
“Any oil operation in the Casitas watershed has the potential to be a disaster for the water supply,” said Hines. “That is a pretty big gamble.”
Visit the DOGGR onling mapping system (DOMS) to see where there are active and plugged wells in the Ojai Valley: http://maps.conservation.ca.gov/doms/doms-app.html.