Water v. Oil

Mark Kram’s letter to the editor (“Fracking Water“) opens an interesting Pandora’s box. Having worked in the oil patch, one realizes it is very much a dog-eat-dog (and anyone else standing around) business. Mark mentions the water used in fracking. That, for all practical purposes, is lost water, it does not come back. But that is just a fraction of the water used.

When looking for oil, there is an enormous demand for water and, interestingly enough, this is seldom discussed. Another big user of water that does not return is the high-quality water needed for thermally enhanced oil recovery (TEOR). This is through the injection of steam into the formation to make the oil less viscous and more easily pumped.

Thus, as we shun the alternative sources of renewable energy, we really shoot ourselves in the foot because we are using up a resource that we can not live with out: water. Large areas of this country are living on borrowed time. These are communities relying on underlying fossil aquifers and these are not small communities but major portions of this nation. These fossil aquifers were put in place long ago by systems that no longer exist, like the melt water from giant glaciers that moved down across what is now the continental United States long ago, and then receded when the ice age abated. Once that water is pumped out, that’s the end of it, and the overlying very large dependent populations will be competing for other sources.

The climate experts are predicting a return to dust-bowl days with major dust storms. These dry areas will expand as the underlying aquifers are depleted and the overlying ag land dries out. Many of these areas are so over-tilled that the soil fails to clump and thus is even more prone to blow away as it dries out. The only thing holding the soil down in many areas is irrigation water.

These are also often lands that have had years of sewage sludge applied as a form of fertilizer. Sewage sludge is the solids left over when the water is removed from sewage. In big cities with lots of polluting industry, industry dumps its waste to the sewer and these industrial wastes end up in the sewage sludge. As the farms dry down, this soil contaminated with years of sewage sludge will start to blow about. Sewer plants are also one of the prime generators of antibiotic resistant pathogens and these pathogens and their hard-to-destroy genes end up in the sludge.

A good example is Adenovirus-C, which is a lung pathogen found in about 78 percent of the sewage sludge. The problem is that regulatory agencies don’t use that pathogen as an indicator of pollution but rather Adenovirus-F, which is found at a rate of 0.7% of samples. Thus, while highly infective, the sewage sludge gets a passing grade because the regulators use the wrong indicators. Regional dust storms are predicted to increase as climate change takes effect. The lung damage from these dust storms will, because of entrained pathogens from land-applied sewage sludge, see vast populations affected by antibiotic resistant pathogens and lung disease that will be hard to treat, if treatable at all.

These will be some of the costs associated when we put alternative energy sources on the back burner and rely on extracting fossil fuels without regard to associated impacts. As Mark says, the “unintended consequences will rule the day.”

Dr. Edo McGowan specializes in medical geo-hydrology.

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