Between Farmers And Frackers, Calif. Water Caught In Tussle

California's extreme drought has drawn battle lines over who gets water and who doesn't. As KQED's Lauren Sommer reports, fracking and farming are vying for freshwater in California's Central Valley.

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Water supplies in California are tight with the state's severe drought and that's putting a spotlight on hydraulic fracturing or fracking. The controversial oil and gas extraction technique uses freshwater, which can mean millions of gallons for each fracking site.

Lauren Sommer of member station KQED reports from California's Central Valley, where tensions between oil and agriculture are on the rise.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEES)

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: The bees are mostly done pollinating this year's almond crop. Wooden beehives are stacked up at the end of a long row of almond trees.

KEITH GARDINER: We're just coming off of our bloom period. The bees are leaving the orchard.

SOMMER: Keith Gardiner farms about 12,000 acres around Wasco, a small town in the southern Central Valley. Bring up the state's drought and Gardiner reacts the way a lot of farmers do - with a frown and a shake of the head.

GARDINER: As you can see, we've got major investments in these trees and we can't lay it idle for a year. They have to have water every year.

SOMMER: Which is why he's concerned about what's happening just nearby.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

SOMMER: Oil wells are sprinkled around the orchards here, the pump jacks slowly bobbing into sight above the treetops.

GARDINER: Not only is it the best farm ground in the world but it also holds some of the best deposits of minerals called the Monterey Shale. And the new technology has allowed the oil companies to be able to extract that through the fracking process.

SOMMER: Fracking, that's where water is injected into an oil well at high pressure, along with sand and chemicals. It creates tiny cracks in the rock, freeing up the oil. Other states have seen massive booms because of this technology. In Pennsylvania, it's been for natural gas. In North Dakota, it's oil. California hasn't seen the same boom, at least not yet.

DAVE MINER: It's very hard to get this oil out.

SOMMER: Dave Miner is the exploration manager for Aera Energy, one of California's largest oil producers. He's showing me a smooth, gray rock - a piece of the Monterey Shale.

MINER: There is oil in this particular rock. You can touch and it won't come out. You can smell it. And...

(LAUGHTER)

SOMMER: A little musty, I guess.

MINER: Yeah, little bit.

SOMMER: The Monterey Shale is thought to be the largest oil reserve in the country - 13 billion barrels according to one estimate. Miner says fracking is key to opening it up.

MINER: We're in very early days trying to figure out what might make this work and be economic. And it may take several years. It may take longer.

SOMMER: Fracking is nothing new in California. It's been used for decades in the state's older oil fields. But as interest in the less-developed Monterey Shale has grown, so have the concerns.

PROTESTERS: (Chanting) No more fracking. No more fracking...

SOMMER: Protesters have been rallying around the state for a moratorium on fracking.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: California doesn't want our water depleted from fracking or any hydraulic drilling methods.

TUPPER HULL: In California today, hydraulic fracturing uses very small amounts of water.

SOMMER: Tupper Hull is with the Western States Petroleum Association, an oil industry group. He points out, all together, fracking operations in California currently use the same amount of water each year as 650 homes do.

HULL: It is not a lot of water in the big picture. Companies are looking very diligently at ways to reduce that number.

SOMMER: But a drilling boom in the Monterey Shale could change that. Fracking there uses more water than anywhere else in the state, up to a million gallons per well.

HULL: I think it's fair to say that if this technology that has proved so successful in other parts of the country can be as successful here, that we will see water consumption for hydraulic fracturing going up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

SOMMER: That doesn't sit well with some farmers, like Keith Gardiner. Back in his almond orchard, he says many oil companies are getting water from the same water districts that farmers rely on.

GARDINER: So they're competing for the same water that we're using for our farms. That's taken away from the farm fields.

SOMMER: Fracking is happening in parts of California where water is already tight, even when there isn't a drought.

In the meantime, the state legislature is taking up the issue. Lawmakers are considering a bill that would require oil companies to disclose all the water they use. Another bill would put a moratorium on fracking completely.

For NPR News, I'm Lauren Sommer.

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