Oil Wells Guzzle Precious California Water; Next Door, Residents Can’t Use the Tap
A town in the oil industry’s shadow grapples with health fears as the state fails to limit companies’ use of fresh water.
Towering refineries and rusty pumpjacks greet visitors driving along the highways of Kern County, Calif. Oil wells sit in the middle of fields of grapevines and almond trees. The air is heavy with dust and the scent of petroleum.
The energy fields here are some of the most productive in the US, generating millions of barrels of oil annually and more than two-thirds of the state’s natural gas. And in a drought-stricken state, they’re also some of the thirstiest, consuming vast quantities of fresh water to extract stubborn oil.
But in the industry’s shadow, nearby communities can’t drink from the tap. One of those communities is Fuller Acres, a largely Latino town in Kern County where residents must drive to the nearest town to buy safe water. There is no proven link between the unsafe drinking water and the oil industry that surrounds the town, but there is a history of big businesses polluting the resources they share with their neighbors. For instance, nearby farming has left a dangerous pesticide known as 1,2,3-TCP in the drinking water.
Advocates say the dichotomy highlights deep-seated inequities in a state where water is a precious resource. The western US is in the midst of a once-in-a-millinium megadrought driven by the climate crisis. California officials have imposed restrictions on domestic water use and residents face fines for breaking the rules.
But as the state begins to phase out fossil fuels and usher in a sustainable economy, it has yet to limit the use of fresh water by oil companies.
Between 2018 and 2021, oil and gas companies in California consumed nearly 3 billion gallons of fresh water for drilling operations—water that could otherwise have supplied domestic systems, according to Food & Water Watch, an NGO that focuses on corporate and government accountability. That’s equivalent to more than 120 million showers.
Caroline Wren, a researcher with Food & Water Watch, calls it grave misuse that benefits the very companies that are exacerbating global heating.
“California cannot afford to waste water on industries like the fossil fuel industry that are unequivocally worsening the climate crisis and the water crisis,” she said.
‘Everybody Buys Water’
Fuller Acres is a community of about 1,000 people, mostly farmworkers, living in a collection of bungalows surrounded by a patchwork of farm fields and dozens of oil wells. A refinery looms over the town. At night, it lights up like a Christmas tree, and in the morning, it lets off flares that smell of rotten eggs.
In 2022, central California, including Kern county, experienced “exceptional drought” conditions, the highest category of official drought ranking. Other states in the western US also saw exceptional drought in 2022. Although historic rains flooded California in January, Kern County remains in severe drought.
On a mild December afternoon, stray dogs roam the Fuller Acres convenience store parking lot in search of kind faces and snacks. The catchy beats of Bad Bunny emanate from passing traffic.
Around the corner, Maria Villa lives in a cheerful turquoise bungalow. Her hair is pulled into a high bun and gray wisps frame her face.
She has lived here for decades but has long avoided drinking the tap water. About 20 years ago, when her parents became sick, she began to suspect the water was unsafe. “They died of cancer,” she said. “My dad had cancer in his stomach, and I don’t know if that happened [because of] the water or something else.
“He always drank the water from the house, and then, when he started getting sick, I started buying water.”
The Fuller Acres Water Company, which is responsible for the community’s water, sent her a notice warning that her water was contaminated with 1,2,3-TCP, which the EPA has classified as probably carcinogenic to humans because it causes cancer in animals. TCP was manufactured by companies such as Shell and Dow and used by farmers in central California from the 1950s to the 1980s.
In 2018, Fuller Acres Water Company became one of 40 local water suppliers in California to sue Shell and Dow, accusing them of contaminating water with TCP. Shell and Dow have settled dozens of cases.
Now, Maria Villa and her sister Angelita Villa only use the tap water to wash dishes and shower. “I have rashes on my face and body,” Angelita said in Spanish, scratching her arms.
Twice a week, Villa drives to Lamont, a town about 3 miles away, to buy water from dispensing machines. It costs her about $48 per month on top of her domestic water bill of $210 a month. Her neighbors face the same reality: “Everybody is the same, everybody buys water.”
Water inequity in the Central Valley exists because water delivery is highly fragmented. While cities have significant freshwater resources to meet demand from residents and industry, including oil companies, smaller communities have never been hooked up to a large municipal supplier and instead draw water from wells.
Drought puts these communities at risk as decreasing surface water supply increases reliance on groundwater. Oil and agricultural companies drill deep wells that suck up groundwater, which, in turn, depletes the water in shallower wells that residents rely on, increasing concentrations of existing contaminants or drying up the wells altogether. A new study in the journal Nature Communications found that groundwater was rapidly depleting in the Central Valley, which includes Fuller Acres.
The wastewater used in oil extraction can also put drinking water at risk. KQED reported in 2017 that companies injected wastewater directly into protected aquifers and thousands of wastewater wells across the state could be contaminating drinking water. A 2021 paper found that wastewater disposal by oil companies affected aquifers used for public and agricultural water supplies.
Fuller Acres and other small towns in Kern County face a “double whammy” of chemicals from agriculture and oil extraction, explained Sandra Plascencia-Rodriguez, Kern County policy advocate with Leadership Counsel, a group that provides legal representation and policy advocacy to low-income, rural communities in California.
According to Leadership Counsel, because small communities like Fuller Acres don’t have the financial means to dig deeper wells or operate and maintain water treatment plants, they’re harder hit by lowering groundwater levels and groundwater contamination.