Wet ’n’ mayonnaisey

Take one with a friend.

Take one with a friend.

(Come friend Aunt Ruthie on Facebook and let’s hang out.)

For years, Auntie Ruth took long, luxurious showers. One of those Ruthie things that began as youthful indulgence—off the mind wanders as water sets the senses free—and hardened into a cranky ya-can’t-take-that-from-me necessity, the kind only middle-aged Americans can claim as such.

Times have changed. Water ain’t what it used to be.

Sure, it’s been a good year for water in Northern California. The green in the fields has held into summer; the waterfalls in the Sierra have been full and fast. The usual reports of water shortages have been in short supply.

But we remain a desert state, and the elaborate method by which we share water from north to south has been a political football for friggin’ ever. Many communities don’t have enough water. Some that do are paying more for it—the city of Davis will triple its residents’ water bills by 2016, for example, from $420 annually to $1,308.

This is why Auntie Ruth was shocked to read that water from our own Sacramento Delta was being used in increasing amounts to process oil in Southern California. The process, called steam flooding, takes water from the California aqueduct, runs it through co-generation plants and then pumps that steam underground to extract oil (which doesn’t resemble the amber brown liquid you pour into your car. This stuff is thick and gooey, more like mayonnaise).

No less than 83 percent of the water from the West Kern Water District is used for this purpose—enough water to supply 200,000 households each year. As reported by Jeremy Miller on the radio program Living on Earth, it’s taking more and more of our water to get the steaming done: from 4.5 barrels of water to, currently, 8 just to process 1 barrel of oil.

How much NorCal water gets diverted to SoCal? According to Pulitzer Prize-winner Tom Philp, formerly of the Bee and now a “strategist” for a SoCal water district, not much. Blogging for SFGate, he wrote that SoCal gets 4 percent of NorCal water overall. West Kern Water District is one of 13 “member units” under the Kern County Water Agency. Still, since the process began in the ’60s, steam flooding has used nearly 3 trillion gallons of water to produce oil—roughly the equivalent of a 1 foot-deep lake the size of Lake Ontario.

Sure, save water by showering with a friend. Or by driving less, hmm?