irrigation outlet tower
Photo: mrfotos / Shutterstock

By Audrey Hill, Feature Contributor, Valley Ag Voice

As water stress and scarcity here in California rises, finding financially sustainable ways to irrigate our fields and maintain our livestock is always up for debate. Luckily, as we become more technologically advanced and work to make more efficient uses of what we do have available, unexpected water sources can be found in sectors of our economy no one would think to look.

Dr. Sumita Sarma and Dr. Luis Cabrales, both CSUB professors, have been working to develop one unexpected water source found here in Kern County: oil production. Although the two fields, agriculture and oil, tend not to mingle very well, they can benefit each other in creative ways. Dr. Sarma has her PhD in Entrepreneurship and Innovation and has been working alongside others like Dr. Cabrales, who specializes in fibers and biopolymers, and CSUB students on their project “Diffusion of an Innovative Product: The Case of Reusing OPW,” which aims to further develop electrochemical oxidation technology to reclaim wastewater from the oilfields of Kern County and transform it into clean, usable water for agriculture at a fair price.

They are also working to find and develop a community that could support and be supported using this technology on a commercial level. This would reduce the amount of water wasted through oil production and make it easier to find, and hopefully in the near future, cheaper for local farms.

According to Sarma, this project is grouped into two areas: engineering through processing the water and entrepreneurship with marketing the idea to those who would be involved. Over summer of 2020, she worked on the entrepreneurship side to answer questions like, “What are the key barriers to widespread adoption of oilfield produced water for agricultural irrigation, and what can be done to overcome these barriers?” In the process, she is working to get the entrepreneurs, investors, and producers excited about the project.

Not only is this project beneficial to local farmers, it would bring in more opportunities for growth in many other fields as well. During the work on this project, she has interviewed and surveyed many stakeholders including, of course, large and small oil and ag producers, but also entrepreneurs who could develop this tech commercially including water district managers, water board personnel, environmentalists and other academics to assess their needs.

One of the barriers she has found throughout the public eye is a hesitancy to trust produced water–especially oil-produced water–as a valid water source for our crops. “There is a disgust toward produced water being used for our food that you wouldn’t find for something like rainwater,” she says. These fears seem to be our natural instinct; however, they are based in a misunderstanding of what the technology does. Sarma is working to bring people together to better understand how we can benefit from this technology and how our community as a whole could benefit from its implementation.

As the project moves forward, Dr. Sarma is now looking to find collaborators to manage the waste products taken out of the reclaimed water and is working toward installing “the technology while simultaneously ensuring that adequate information is being shared with the various stakeholders and their concerns are being mitigated.”

“There is a common goal among us,” Sarma states, to conserve the water we do have. By increasing the efficiency and bridging the gap between agriculture and oil, we can find more sustainable, holistic sources for water and likely many other resources. Instead of throwing out used water in oilfields, likely increasing chances for pollution, we can collect it, process it, and hopefully in the near future, with the help of Dr. Sarma and Dr. Cabrales, make it financially accessible to farmers, even more so than what they currently pay. There is an increasing demand for sustainability that some believe is out of financial reach, however some would argue that they are not looking in the right areas. This is what it means to be sustainable, to find niches where we aren’t making the most out of the available resources and then improve them.