California: Combating Aquifer Contamination in the Midst of Drought

Victoria Elliott

California has been suffering through a state of drought for at least 3 years. Recently, the conditions have worsened, and with all of California presently in some sort of drought, the Governor has declared a state of emergency. This not only affects California, but the rest of the world, as California produces more than 50% of the United States’ fruits, vegetables, and nuts, and 90% of the world’s almonds, among other crops.1 This drought has cost California’s agricultural industry upwards of $2.2 billion dollars in losses. With more than four trillion gallons of groundwater used since 2011 to power this agricultural machine, it is evident that California’s aquifer system is a valuable resource. However, this important supply of water is being contaminated by the disposal of wastewater from fracking, undermining California’s ability to hydrate its residents and irrigate its farms. Although multiple bills are at various stages in congress to regulate the process and implementation of fracking, it does not seem that it will be banned any time soon.

There has been much debate over fracking and its consequences and benefits. The process of fracking is often seen as the cause of many problems, including contamination of wells, spurring of earthquakes, and destruction of ecosystems, however the frequency and magnitude of these events are often overestimated and usually stem from the major method of disposal of the wastewater from the fracking process, and not the drilling itself. For clarification, the fracking process, or hydraulic fracturing, entails drilling thousands of feet underground to access the natural gas deposits that are trapped in shale formations. Treated water is pumped into these wells to fracture the rock and prop them open, allowing natural gas to flow out. This process results in millions of gallons of wastewater, which is usually disposed of by being injected into areas underground where it is out of reach of any groundwater sources. In some areas, the wastewater is injected into porous rock, like sandstone that can absorb the fluids.2 In the case of California, the wastewaters from some fracking operations had been injected into aquifers that the EPA in 1982 deemed unsuitable for drinking and farming use, and were therefore made exempt from environmental guidelines. Apparently, it was rather unclear which places were safe and unsafe for wastewater injection, and as a result, potable water sources have been contaminated.3,4

The possibility of water sources being contaminated from fracking fluids and the possible health risks associated with these contaminants has spurred much of the opposition to fracking. Presently, it is difficult to determine the probability of the risks that contamination may pose of human and animal health. Anti-fracking organizations continuously update websites directed at the general public to warn them about the dangers of fracking. They contain summaries of the risks and worst case scenarios of contamination, mentioning lists of toxic chemicals found in fracking fluids, and the health concerns associated with them. Websites sponsored by evidently pro-fracking organizations, like oil companies, are targeted toward the same audiences. However, these informational sites describe the low likelihood of the worst case scenarios fracking, and mention that fracking fluid consists 95% (and in some cases more than 99%) of water, with the remaining being made up of various chemicals that are crucial to the gas extraction process. Some sites, such as, sponsored by the Independent Petroleum Association of America, go as far as listing the specific purpose for fracking and common application of compounds that may raise concerns about health. Energy in Depth claims that fracking fluid is composed of 99.51% freshwater and sand, and only .49% additives.5 The information provided by either of the debate make it difficult to have a sound understanding of the risks of fracking. Additionally, peer-reviewed, scholarly articles concerning the health risks of fracking fluids are hard to come by.6

Since the health implications of contamination by fracking fluid remains undetermined, current legislation introduced by California legislators is expected to provide regulation to prevent disasters from happening. For example, SB4 on the Regulation of Oil Gas and Geothermal Activities for Transparency, Monitoring, and Advance Notification focuses on the regulation of the actual fracking process, prerequisites of obtaining a fracking permit, and the monitoring of wells after treatment.7 This would ensure that wells are properly built and maintained to prevent the migration of fracking fluids and the leaking into potable water sources. To obtain a permit for hydraulic fracturing, the location and depth of the well, existing wells, and protected water sources must be clarified to prevent contamination of usable water sources. Since the disposal of wastewater into unprotected aquifers is the main contributor to the contamination of protected water sources, the proposed disposal method must be disclosed before a firm may get permission to drill. The chemicals and concentrations of the well stimulation fluids must also be disclosed before the drilling process is permitted.

SB 1132 on Oil and Gas: Well Stimulation Moratorium attempted to prohibit fracking and other types of well stimulation for oil and gas in the state of California, allowing time for the evaluation of “potential direct, indirect, an cumulative health and impacts of onshore and offshore well stimulation” to “ensure that well stimulation treatments do not pose a risk to, or impairment of, the public health and welfare” of the state.8 This bill failed on the senate floor, most likely due to many of the stakes that the private sector and the government have in the possibilities of the current natural gas boom. The realization of these natural gas resources via fracking would prove beneficial to the economy, providing jobs and revenue from drilling sites, transport, and the taxation and exportation of natural gas. Unlocking of the potential of these natural gas reserves would benefit US energy security, making the US less dependent on foreign oil. Taking advantage of natural gas could be a potential step towards lowering carbon emissions, as natural gas releases a quarter of the carbon that coal emits. The difference could be substantial, considering that coal fuels 20% of US energy consumption and fuels 46% of US electrical power.9 It is evident that private oil and natural gas companies have been benefiting of these newly unlocked sources of fuel, and will continue to benefit from them as long as there are resources that allow them to drill for them, and as long as there is a market for natural gas. It appears that economic prosperity is the fracking moratorium’s biggest adversary. This could explain the apparent disinterest that the government and the natural gas industry show for exploring potential environmental or health issues, and the lack of reliable research on the health concerns of fracking fluid contamination.

Considering that the main issue in the case of California lies in the method of disposal of the used fracking fluids, the solution would be to slow and cease the improper disposal of chemicals, and to enforce stricter regulation on the practice of fracking. Current firms permitted to drill before the current regulations should be made to substantially cut the amount their disposal of waste, or cease the drilling process until a proper method of waste disposal been obtained. Fracking should be able to continue at a rate where the waste disposal is at a minimum, until the firms are able to show that they have a safe way of disposing their waste materials.

It seems that currently there is a standoff between fracking wastewater disposal and the state of California’s water resources. It is difficult to say whether or not fracking should continue. It is impossible to say whether the benefits outweigh the disadvantages, as there is not yet enough information to determine all of the risks of fracking. It does not seem likely that fracking will end anytime soon, however, the proper regulation of the entire fracking process should leave California’s water resources and residents uncontaminated and healthy.


  1. Allen, Nick. How Bad is the California Drought? 28 October 2014.
  2. Kowalski, Kathiann M. Fracking Wastewater is Big Business in Ohio. 18 July 2014.
  3. Broder, Ken. State Shuts Down Fracking Waste Injection Sites as Possible Threats to Aquifers. 21 July 2014.
  4. RT. California Aquifers Contaminated with Billions of Gallons of Fracking Wastewater. 9 October 2014.
  5. Energy In Depth. “A Fluid Situation.” 2009. EnergyInDepth.Org.
  6. Mitka, Mike. “Rigorous Evidence Slim for Determining Health Risks from Natural Gas Fracking.” The Journal of the American Medical Association 23 May 2012: 2135-2136.
  7. Pavley, Fran. “SB-4 Oil and Gas: Well Stimulation.” 20 September 2013. California Legislative Information.
  8. Leno, Mark and Holly J. Mitchell. “SB-1132 Oil And Gas: Well Stimulation Treatment.” 2014 February 2014. California Legislative Information.
  9. US Environmental Protection Agency. Natural Gas. 25 September 2013.