California officials have ordered an emergency shut-down of 11 oil and gas waste injection sites plus a review of 100 others in the state's Central Valley. The state's Division of Oil and Gas and Geothermal Resources sent cease-and-desist orders on July 7 to seven energy companies warning them that they might be injecting their toxic waste into aquifers that might be used for drinking water.
While many of the state's aquifers are under environmental protection, other are not. Decades ago, at least 100 of the state's aquifers were deemed useless for farming or drinking because they were either too deep underground or produced water of poor quality. The state therefore exempted these aquifers from protection and allowed gas and oil companies to pollute them. As a result, California has a patchwork of protected and unprotected aquifers. According to the cease-and-desist orders, at least seven injection wells may have been pumping their waste into aquifers that were protected.
According to documents the state had filed with the EPA in 1981, the exempted aquifers were poorly defined. They were often hand-drawn on a map, making it difficult to know today exactly which bodies of water were supposed to be protected. The exemption and documents were signed by then-Governor Jerry Brown. The Division first became aware of this problem during a review of fracking facilities being conducted as required by a new fracking law passed last year. That law, which into effect last January, requires California state officials to study fracking impacts and mitigate all known risks, including those associtated with underground waste disposal.
State officials will now order water testing and monitoring at the injection well sites in question. So far, they have not found any contamination in the protected aquifers.
California's drought exacerbates matters. It has emptied reservoirs and cost the state $2.2 billion this year alone. According to the University of California Davis, the drought has forced farmers to supplement their water from underground aquifers. For three years in a row, California has been having record-low rainfall, receiving an average of just four inches of rain in 2013. Downtown Las Angeles, which gets almost 15 inches of rain in a normal year, got just 3.6 inches in 2013.
Some experts now believe that the once-"useless" aquifers the state and the EPA believed would never be used, could become important water sources as the climate changes and the technology makes it possible to both retrieve water from deep underground and make it safe for human use. Some towns in Wyoming and Texas, which are also plagued by drought, are already pumping, treating, and delivering water from deep aquifers of the type that California state regulations had deemed unusable.