Water Treatment Plant Opens in Central California

The 33,000-square-foot processing plant initially hopes to treat 420,000 gallons — ultimately up to 1 million gallons — of produced water per day.

(TNS) — Testing is expected to begin next month at a Wasco oil field wastewater treatment plant that, if successful, could boost water supplies for Kern County farmers while addressing a vexing problem for local oil producers.

Sweetwater Tech Resources LLC, a 4-year-old Wyoming company doing business in California as Wasco Wastewater Technologies LLC, said it plans Feb. 15 to begin filtering “produced water,” the salty fluid that comes up from the ground along with oil.

If the process meets expectations, Sweetwater hopes to open a 33,000-square-foot processing plant in Wasco that would initially treat 420,000 — ultimately up to 1 million — gallons of produced water per day. The company is planning a second facility in Lost Hills that could treat more than 3 million gallons per day.

The company says it has agreements with local oil producers to provide wastewater for testing, then take the fluid back for disposal by other means. Sweetwater adds there is no shortage of potential customers, from petroleum companies looking for a way to dispose of their produced water, to farmers looking for water for irrigation and industrial processes. Some treated water would also be reused in oil field steaming operations.

Produced water disposal and reuse has been a hot topic the last couple of years and not just because of the drought.

Federal, state and regional regulators have recently turned a critical eye to the oil industry’s usual practices of injecting the fluid deep underground or letting it evaporate and seep into unlined ponds. California officials have closed at least 54 injection wells since July 2014, most of them in Kern and many of them high-volume injectors, out of concern they may have the potential to contaminate federally protected groundwater.

Meanwhile, environmental groups have begun raising questions about the safety of existing programs that treat produced water and then send it to local water districts for use in irrigating crops for human consumption. An expert panel formed by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board to examine the safety of such practices will hold its first public meeting Tuesday in Rancho Cordova.

Sweetwater manager Dundee Kelbel said the safety of reusing produced water for irrigation is “obviously ... the issue of the day.” His company wouldn’t proceed with such a use, he said, unless it has the right technology partner, scientific partners to help monitor the project’s results and the help of “socially conscious” oil producers interested in the project’s outcome.

“There are no guarantees,” he said, “but there should be no release of that water (for agricultural use) ... until you check all those boxes.”

The two projects’ filtration technology is expected to be provided by a Los Angeles-based company called Water Planet Inc. It has proposed a multi-stage process that begins by skimming oil off the top of produced water, letting the fluid settle and removing solids from the bottom.

After that, the wastewater would be put through a series of filters, ultimately including reverse osmosis.

Water Planet’s director of business development, Jason Lake, said one feature that distinguishes its technology from competitors is the way it decides how often to wash off a ceramic filter critical to the process. While other companies rinse such equipment at pre-set intervals, he said, Water Planet monitors the system carefully to determine exactly when the ceramic filter needs to be cleaned, thereby operating at greater efficiency.

Kelbel said Sweetwater has a pending agreement on a one-year contract with the prestigious Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to participate in the company’s model and to “preview emerging issues” in the area of treatment and reuse of produced water for irrigation.

A representative of Lawrence Livermore could not be reached for comment.

Among the potential customers Kelbel said the company is speaking with is Los Angeles-based The Wonderful Co., one of Kern County’s largest agricultural operators.

He said Wonderful, owner of the Halos brand of mandarins, is “very interested” in possibly using treated produced water for irrigation as well as maybe for industrial processing purposes. Kelbel said it is waiting for the grower to send Sweetwater specifications of the water quality it would require.

The Wonderful Co.’s vice president of corporate communications, Steven Clark, said his company is “not engaged in formal discussions to adopt this particular technology.” But he added that Wonderful is “committed to evaluating any and all effective ways to conserve and best utilize limited water resources.”

Kelbel declined to provide the names of oil producers that have expressed interest in participating in the project.

One large producer that already treats its produced water for reuse in irrigation, Chevron Corp., did not indicate whether it might work with Sweetwater, but commended the company’s efforts.

“Chevron welcomes any company that can crack the nut to economically clean wastewater for beneficial reuse that would not otherwise be available, especially during this drought time,” spokeswoman Carla Musser wrote in an email.

©2016 The Bakersfield Californian (Bakersfield, Calif.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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