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Turning water into ethanol is no miracle

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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 1000 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 US 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 2000 to 3000 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 US 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 (pdf map). 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 Act 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 re-seed 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 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 (pdf), increasing irrigated corn acreage by 10 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).

Vanishing rivers

After World War II, irrigation technology reached a level that allowed for faster exploitation of the Ogallala. The US 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.

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Stan Cox is author of "Sick Planet: Corporate Food and Medicine" (Pluto Press, April 2008). He conducts plant-breeding research and writes in Salina, Kansas.
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