The 115-year-old Kern River oil field unfolds into the horizon, thousands of bobbing pumpjacks seemingly occupying every corner of a desert landscape here in California’s Central Valley. A contributor to the state’s original oil boom, it is still going strong as the nation’s fifth-largest oil field, yielding 70,000 barrels a day.760,000 barrels of water a day produced, compared to 70,000 barrels of oil.
But the Kern River field also produces 10 times more of something that, at least during California’s continuing drought, has become more valuable to many locals and has experienced the kind of price spike more familiar to oil: water. The field’s owner, Chevron, sells millions of gallons every day to a local water district that distributes it to farmers growing almonds, pistachios, citrus fruits and other crops.It is one of the more unusual sources of water, one whose importance has increased in a year when the drought has forced farmers to fallow fields and bulldoze almond orchards. The water is pumped out of the same underground rock that contains oil; after the two are separated, the water flows through an eight-mile pipeline to Bakersfield’s Cawelo Water District, which this year will rely on Chevron’s water for half of its supply, up from an average of a quarter. The district sells it exclusively to farmers for irrigation and reduces its salinity by blending it with water from other sources.