The Folly of Turning Water into Fuel
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With corn selling at record-high prices, Steve Albracht expects to have no trouble paying his electric bills this year. Albracht irrigates 1,000 acres of corn near the town of Hart in the Texas Panhandle and expects to shell out $180 to $240 per acre to run his pumps through the spring and summer. "In this area," says Albracht, "the water table has dropped, but nobody's cutting back on watering yet. There's still plenty down there."
Albracht won the 2005 National Corn Yield Contest in the "irrigated" category, producing a whopping 352 bushels per acre. In a region that gets an average of less than 18 inches of rain annually, Albracht and his neighbors apply anywhere from 28 inches to more than 3 feet of water to their corn each year. With the prospect of a highly profitable harvest, Albracht says he can afford to water generously this year. And he'll need to, he says, "because it's been a dry winter."
For once, times are good in the High Plains. Corn and other grains are selling like precious metals, and there is every reason to believe that prices will stay high. At the heart of the boom is the U.S. government's decision to rely on corn-based ethanol to meet a big part of the nation's demand for "renewable" fuels.
Most recent controversy over ethanol has focused on the its poor energy return; in growing corn and turning it into ethanol, you have to burn three calories to get four. With prices of fuel and other inputs rising fast, corn farmers won't be getting rich (except for those who happen to have oil wells on their property.) But selling their corn for such high prices, they can afford to sow more acres and burn more propane, diesel or electricity to pump more water than ever. A torrent of cash will be flowing through the nation's corn-growing regions, but the biggest price will be paid in water.
Thirst for corn
To hear agribusiness boosters and politicians tell it, corn-based ethanol is a miraculous solution to the nation's hunger for liquid fuels. But as miracles go, it's not all that impressive. When Jesus, according to Biblical reports, converted approximately 150 gallons of water into an equivalent quantity of wine, his conversion rate was about a cup of ethanol per gallon of water invested (given the typical alcohol content of wine). Compare that to current processes that use irrigated corn as their carbon source and get less than a teaspoon of ethanol for each gallon of water consumed.
In dry areas of the High Plains where irrigation is the most crucial to corn production and the ethanol-to-water ratio even lower, agriculture is dependent on a one-time drawing of groundwater that hasn't seen daylight for 11,000 years or more. The vast Ogallala aquifer, stretching from not far south of Steve Albracht's Texas farm all the way up into South Dakota, is being mined at a rate that, in some areas, will drain it sometime in the relatively near future -- at least before the oil wells of the Persian Gulf run dry.
The Ogallala was trapped underneath the High Plains around the time of the last ice age. The formation holds enough ancient water to fill Lake Huron, the second-greatest of the Great Lakes -- or at least it did before being exploited for agriculture. In the High Plains, raising a single bushel of irrigated corn slurps up 2,000 to 3,000 gallons of water, and more corn than ever is being raised there.
With national corn acreage having shot up 15 percent just from 2006 to 2007, pressure on water resources is increasing. The U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that the land area sown to corn will remain at historically high levels of 90 million acres or more through at least 2017. The incentive: the price, which has rocketed up from around $2.00 to more than $5.00 per bushel. And USDA forecasters now see high corn prices as near-permanent.
Most of the region's corn currently goes to cattle feedlots, but from this point onward, prices will be kept high by the ethanol industry. In western Kansas, for example, ethanol production plants have a total capacity of 143 million gallons per day, but new plants already planned or under construction will add more than 700 million gallons per day, most of that from irrigated corn or sorghum. In the eastern half of the state, where the Kansas River is already considered a toxic hazard because of fertilizer contamination, corn ethanol capacity is slated to grow from 101 to 667 gallons per day in the near future.
The Energy Independence and Security Act, passed by Congress just before Christmas, requires that the nation produce 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol per year by 2015. While meeting only 10 percent of Americans' gasoline consumption, that level of production would require massive, permanent increases in the amount of land sown to corn, as well as ramped-up water consumption and pollution.
That new law will also be a big nail in the coffin of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which since the mid-80s has been paying farmers to reseed millions of acres of highly erodable cropland to diverse mixtures of native perennial grasses and other plants. CRP has done more to conserve soil and protect water in agricultural regions than any other federal intiative. But the USDA now estimates that farmers will plow up 5 million acres of CRP land in the next four years alone to plant corn and other biofuel crops.
According to the calculations of the Washington-based group Environmental Defense, increasing irrigated corn acreage by 10 percent to 20 percent in the High Plains will have an effect on water resources similar to that of plopping onto its landscape a city the size of metropolitan Denver (which would be equivalent to doubling the human population of the entire region).
After World War II, irrigation technology reached a level that allowed for faster exploitation of the Ogallala. The U.S. Geological Survey has reported that by 2005, the most heavily exploited areas, accounting for almost a tenth of the entire region, had seen the water table drop between 50 and 270 feet farther beneath the surface. Farmers in some of the prime agricultural areas with the richest, thickest water deposits -- in western Kansas, eastern Colorado, and the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles -- have had to spend more and more money and fuel to bring water from greater and greater depths.
Flowing through the natural shortgrass vegetation of western Kansas, once-great rivers like the Arkansas are fed not just by surface streams but also by water tables that reach up and away from their streambed. Across much of the region, irrigation has drawn aquifers down so far that the flow of water has reversed, now moving down and out of rivers into the surrounding dry ground. Rivers are actually dropping underground, leaving only dusty beds visible for much of the year.
In Kansas, a significant portion of the Ogallala's area has already shrunk below the threshold -- 30 to 50 feet thick -- that can support large-scale irrigation. Kansas lies downstream from Colorado and Nebraska, and has fought bitter water battles with both states in recent years. Those border regions in which struggles over water have been fiercest are precisely the regions being eyed for new ethanol plants and bigger plantings of thirsty corn.
Farther south, the situation is even worse. The USDA has recorded water-table drops of 100 feet in the Texas Panhandle, and by 2025, several counties at the southern fringe of the Ogallala in west Texas will have lost 50 percent to 60 percent of their water that's available for pumping. Agricultural economists at nearby Texas Tech University predict that unless restrictions are put in place, farmers will most likely respond to water shortages (and high corn prices) by drilling more wells and depleting the water even faster than that.
Unlike the High Plains, the Corn Belt of Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and surrounding states receives enough rain to naturally replenish most groundwater used to irrigate crops. There, the bigger issue is quality, not quantity of water. Maps of nitrate pollution in streams and groundwater fit closely to maps of nitrogen fertilizer use across the country, especially in the Corn Belt. The National Academy of Sciences found that recent increases in corn production have already led to greater pollution of surface and groundwater. The risk is "considerable," says the academy, that expansion of corn ethanol production will add to the nitrate load of the Mississippi River and expand the oxygen-depleted "Dead Zone" in the Gulf of Mexico a thousand miles downstream.
A study conducted last year at the request of Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., painted a scenario in which the conversion to biofuels is even more aggressive than what's currently mandated by the Energy Independence and Security Act: 20 billion gallons of corn ethanol and 1 billion gallons of soy biodiesel annually by 2016. Even that mammoth effort would hardly achieve "energy independence," displacing only 13 percent of our current gasoline consumption and less than 2 percent of diesel. But it would achieve the long-term cultivation of almost 100 million acres of corn, with 47 percent of the nation's crop going straight to ethanol plants.
Under that scenario, fertilizer and pesticide use would increase substantially across the Corn Belt and in the High Plains as well. Toxic nitrates in groundwater would rise accordingly, by 11 percent in the states around the Great Lakes and 8 percent in the southern plains -- areas where a critical need to lower, not raise, nitrate levels already exists.
A recent study found nitrate pollution to be by far the worst in those aquifer-dependent regions of Texas where irrigated corn and sorghum are now grown and will likely increase in acreage as ethanol plants clamor for more and more grain. University of Kansas scientists found that pollutants have been concentrated in that state's portion of the Ogallala by "evapotranspiration, oil brine disposal, agricultural practices, brine intrusion and waste disposal," as well as nitrates, chlorides and sulfates.
'Everybody else has to get his cut'
Riding the roller-coaster of agricultural economics, farmers have learned to get whenever the getting is good. Ethanol mania is the latest in a long line of schemes designed to wring quick wealth out of a rural landscape that's more suited to slow, steady exploitation. Last year, the Lawrence, Kan., Journal-World reported on the short-term pragmatism that underlies the boom in western Kansas:
Wayne Bossert, manager of the Northwest Kansas Groundwater District No. 4, in Colby, has a counter view. "If you are going to make money, you are going to use water," Bossert said. "If you want to make less money, use less water. It's an economic resource out here; it's about choices." Bossert said policymakers wanting to reduce use of the aquifer needed to approach the problem with eyes wide open. "We are going to have economic and social impacts. Are you certain this is the way you want to go?" he said ... Bossert noted that irrigation is the foundation of industries ranging from crops, fertilizer and seeds to equipment, land and taxes.
We are wasting irreplaceable water in the name of "energy independence," but so far the only result has been increased dependence of agribusiness on federal and state governments, via subsidies bestowed on every gallon of ethanol produced.
An exhaustive report on the vast tangle of past and current biofuel subsidies, prepared for the International Institute for Sustainable Development, concluded that "government subsidies to liquid biofuels, particularly ethanol, started out as a way to increase the demand for surplus crops. But lately they have been promoted as a way to reduce oil imports, improve the quality of urban air-sheds, reduce carbon dioxide emissions, raise farmers' incomes and promote rural development. That is a tall order for a pair of commodities [ethanol and biodiesel] to live up to. It is highly unlikely that they can."
Yet another goal not listed in that statement -- to ensure a big return on investment for agribusiness -- may be biofuel's chief accomplishment. As champion corn grower Steve Albracht puts it, the ethanol boom may make it possible for him to produce more, but it won't necessarily boost his own net income. "With $800 anhydrous [ammonia fertilizer per acre] and $3.60 diesel for the tractor, we still won't be getting ahead. Everybody else has to get his cut first."
The fate of the plains
Donald Worster, professor of history at the University of Kansas and author of a shelf-full of books on the environmental history of our drier regions, including Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (1979, Oxford University Press), sees only a very limited future for agriculture in the High Plains, noting, "It is basically a mining economy wherever groundwater is the resource to be extracted, and the ultimate result of such an economy is always a ghost town." If we had the legal tools, he says, "We should reserve the remaining groundwater supply for human and animal consumption during the dessicated future that seems likely to develop with climate change." But today there's no mechanism to do that.
Worster believes that as the region dries out, it "will require a large government program to deprivatize a lot of farm acreage and put it into the best vegetation cover we can devise. It will be very difficult to farm much of the southern plains within another 50 years, unless global climate change is arrested very soon. The deprivatized, former agricultural land will have little economic value, except for national parks and light grazing."
In 1987, Deborah and Frank Popper of Rutgers University sparked furious debate across the nation's midsection with their paper "The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust" in the journal Planning. Because the irrigation economy simply cannot last, they wrote,
The federal government's commanding task on the plains for the next century will be to recreate the 19th century, to reestablish what we would call the Buffalo Commons. More and more previously private land will be acquired to form the commons. In many areas, the distinctions between the present national parks, grasslands, grazing lands, wildlife refuges, forests, Indian lands, and their state counterparts will largely dissolve. The small cities of the plains will amount to urban islands in a shortgrass sea. The Buffalo Commons will become the world's largest historic preservation project, the ultimate national park. Most of the Great Plains will become what all of the United States once was -- a vast land mass, largely empty and unexploited.
With the Ogallala shrunk to a size that can support only animal grazing, small industry and a limited human population, the land could eventually restore itself, and the people who remain could achieve a pleasant, if not lucrative, existence. But, wrote the Poppers, "It will be up to the federal government to ease the social transition of the economic refugees who are being forced off the land. For they will feel aggrieved and impoverished, penalized for staying too long in a place they loved and pursuing occupations the nation supposedly respected but evidently did not."
Twelve years after publication of that paper, the Poppers noted that the Buffalo Commons was "materializing more quickly than we had anticipated." However, their evidence for that consisted entirely of an observed growth in the numbers of bison grazing in the region. What they had identified as the chief source of the region's problems -- the drive to wring excess private profit out of a parched landscape -- had not been addressed. Now, almost a decade even farther down the road, the ethanol industry threatens to wreck the region's chances for a smooth transition to its inevitably drier, quieter future.
Quieter, that is, except for the High Plains' other great natural resource: a wind that never stops howling and will never be depleted. That has led Donald Worster to conclude that "wind farms, carefully planned to avoid any destruction of native prairie and wildlife habitat, offer probably the most viable economic future for the plains." However, he warns, that can't be the basis for another growth economy: "I doubt such a future would support the level of population or the number of towns that are currently hanging on."
The vast resource of the Ogallala could be used to help the region ease into such a modestly productive, long-term state. But, saddled with the ethanol industry, the High Plains is more likely to arrive at that future only after passing through an economic crash and ecological ruin.