California Farmers, Oil Men, Competing for Water

April 13, 2014


AP via Business Insider:

The figures prove it. In Fresno County, which leads the nation in agricultural production, officials issued 256 permits to dig new wells in the first three months of 2014, more than twice the number compared to the same time last year. That includes all types of water wells used for agriculture and homes.

In Tulare County, the number of permits issued to dig farm wells alone has tripled to 245. In Kern County, farmers took out 63 new well permits in the first quarter of the year, more than quadrupling last year’s number.

The price to dig a well depends on the depth and ground composition, drillers say, costing a farmer anywhere from $50,000 to $500,000 before installing the pumps.

Tapping groundwater has other costs. The water that was deposited underground naturally over thousands of years isn’t being replaced as rapidly as it’s being drawn, causing the ground in the Central Valley to sink in a process called subsidence. In California, there is little if any regulation of groundwater pumping by the state.

In most years, Central Valley farmers draw one-third of their water from wells, while the remaining two-thirds comes from California’s State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project. Most farmers expect to receive no water from either this summer, and that ratio is dramatically shifting to underground water supplies, which could eventually run dry.

Meanwhile, fossil fuel companies are looking to use precious remaining water resources to tap exotic oil shales beneath some of the most critically endangered agricultural land in the country.

Future Structure:

The race began after the federal Energy Information Administration estimated in 2011 that more than 15 billion barrels of recoverable oil is trapped in what’s known as the Monterey Shale formation, which covers 1,750 square miles, roughly from Bakersfield to Fresno.

But getting at that oil isn’t easy. The Monterey Shale is unlike other oil shale formations across the United States. In those booming oil fields, reserves are pooled in orderly strata of rock. Once the rock is cracked open by fracking or other means, operators can sink a single well with multiple horizontal shafts and pull in oil from a wide area.

California’s geology is far more complicated. The earth under the Monterey Shale has undergone constant seismic reshaping that has folded, stacked and fractured the substrate, trapping the oil in accordion pleats of hard rock at depths of up to 12,000 feet. To reach the crude using conventional methods requires oil companies to drill far-deeper wells, and more of them — a prohibitively expensive undertaking.

To crack the code, companies are busily drilling test wells here, using various fracking and acidization techniques in search of cheaper solutions. So far, no one seems to have found a method to profitably extract the oil.

“Very smart engineers are spending their waking hours trying to come up with the magic formula,” said Rock Zierman, chief executive of the California Independent Petroleum Assn., a trade group that has many Monterey Shale prospectors among its members.

“What we do know is there is a heck of lot of oil down there,” Zierman said. “What we don’t know is how we can get it out of the ground in an economically viable way to justify the heavy investment.”

Exploratory wells are sprouting near homes, schools and in the town of Shafter, where the city charges drillers to hook up to corner fire hydrants for the water they require. Companies are searching for the best well sites with 3D seismic “thumper trucks” that send shock waves underground to create a picture of subterranean deposits.

The implications are profound, touching on public health, water use, water quality and the loss of agricultural land. The subsequent transformation also would alter the lives of families living in the resolutely rural communities dotting the valley.

For Tom Frantz, a retired teacher and third-generation farmer, the exploratory drilling is already too much.

“This is prime farmland and they have drilled between 200 and 300 wells in the last 10 years in the Monterey Shale,” Frantz said. “Every one took out an acre or two of farmland. Every one has used hundreds of thousands of gallons of water. Each one has contributed to our air pollution. Each one has had spills on the ground of different chemicals and crude oil. Each one is emitting methane as we speak.

“If this thing happens and there are thousands and thousands of wells — that’s scary because an accident is bound to happen,” he said.


11 Responses to “California Farmers, Oil Men, Competing for Water”

  1. […] AP via Business Insider: The figures prove it. In Fresno County, which leads the nation in agricultural production, officials issued 256 permits to dig new wells in the first three months of 2014, …  […]

  2. rayduray Says:

    The San Jose Mercury News recently published a substantive article on this groundwater well topic:

    “Well”, she said.
    “That’s a deep subject…. and often dry.” he replied.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      An excellent link from Ray that goes into much more detail than the AP teaser. There is no limit to the greed and stupidity of the human race, and the folks in CA had better wake up—-the rest of us will suffer if CA agriculture collapses, but they will sink. The ground is subsiding, the water table is dropping drastically, and people are sinking ever deeper wells to incredible depths? Now some fools are talking about using some of that precious water for fracking? And drooling over the prospect of being able to tap the Monterey shale? Insane. (and pray for an El Nino that will bring them rain)

  3. rayduray Says:

    More “News of the Dry”. This time from Colombia, where old ranchers have never seen the likes of the drought they are currently experiencing.

    • jimbills Says:

      Thanks for the link.

      An often under-credited phenomenon is the fact that trees bring rainfall via transpiration. If you have enough trees and enough transpiration, it creates its own cloud-seeding effect. Cut the trees, and the area will start to see a marked drop in rainfall.

  4. rayduray Says:

    While most of the news from California relates to drought and adaptations to the dry, it would behoove us to consider that since statehood, California has never experienced the sort of megadroughts that are a commonplace in that state looked at over geological time periods.

    According to the authors of “The West Without Water”, , there was a megadrought in California which lasted from AD 900 to AD 1400. Considering that the current drought has lasted 14 years, we might say that we could have a ways to go yet.

    Now if that prospect troubles you, consider the alternative. Flood. One in 1861-2 inundated the Central Valley and created a shallow sea that extended about 500 miles north to south and 70 miles east to west. Up to 10 feet deep over the floodplain, it destroyed all of man’s improvements in the Central Valley and lasted for three months. Of course this was great for recharging the aquifer. A silver lining indeed.

    But science has discovered this really wasn’t that big a flood. For that, we need to go back to AD 1605. Similar major floods happened in the California region in: 212, 440, 603, 1029, 1418, and as mentioned, in 1862

    Of course Californians tend to take this in stride. The joke when I live there was that California has four seasons: Fire, flood, drought and earthquake.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      “California has four seasons: Fire, flood, drought and earthquake.”?

      Maybe they will need to add “bury the dead” and “move to Colorado” to that list,

      The hubris of mankind is phenomenal—-we persist in ignoring the larger time scale of earth’s “doings” and engaging in “positivity delusions”. Don’t we realize the blood moons are trying to tell us something?

    • markle2k Says:

      Published January of 2011, it contains this paragraph:
      “However plausible the ARkstorm scenario may be, however, it is obviously a ‘worst-case scenario sort of disaster’ and so planning for and undertaking costly preventative measures may not be cost effective. We know, for instance, that Manhattan could be swamped by a 15-20-foot storm surge should a major hurricane sideswipe the city, yet few would recommend building a 15-foot seawall around the southern perimeter of the island in anticipation of such a possibility”.

  5. redskylite Says:

    “there is a traceable anthropogenic warming footprint in the enormous intensity of the anomalous ridge during winter 2013-14, the associated drought and its intensity.”

  6. […] 2014/04/13: PSinclair: California Farmers, Oil Men, Competing for Water […]

  7. […] 2014/04/13: PSinclair: California Farmers, Oil Men, Competing for Water […]

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