A Commentary on Water Use and Bio-Fuels

An October 2007 report by the National Academies entitled Water Implications of Biofuels Production in the United States is very good and is a must read.

I touched on this issue in my book entitled “Understanding Water Rights and Conflicts, Second Edition” published by BurgYoung Publishing. The issues involving water use and energy development in the western United States impact agriculture, energy development and human water supply systems.

I write books and eBooks to Promote awareness through the written word. I have books published on water, energy and terrorism, and I am convinced that one of the major problems with our society is the lack of public awareness about our country’s infrastructure.

As an elected member of our local water board for our small water district west of Denver, CO, I have seen the lack of public awareness first hand. In fact, the water board has just scheduled a tour of our reservoirs, water treatment plant and other facilities for interested residents. Most think their water comes from the water lines in the street in front of their home and have no idea of the infrastructure behind the water in their home. We decided as a water board to be more proactive in acquainting our customers with their water supply system. The more they know, the more they can help the board members in forming policy and making decisions.

In my opinion, this is one of the major flaws with our elected federal officials and the candidates for both Congress and the Presidency over the last 16 years. They have made the assumption that the elected officials know best. What they don’t realize is the better informed the general public the more and better the ideas they get for shaping policy and resolving issues.

Water quality and quantity are both very critical issues in all parts of the United States. Many residents and water customers have very little idea about where their water comes from, let alone how good the quality is and how much their water supplier actually has available, legally and physically.

Water issues are not just local issues anymore. More often than not, water issues in one area are at least regional, if not multi-state issues. They also involve multiple sectors including energy, agriculture, industry and health.

The U.S. ethanol boom threatens to cause “considerable” harm to the nation’s water supplies, a National Academy of Sciences panel warned in a report released today.
Farmers’ heavy irrigation and increased use of fertilizers and pesticides for the production of corn and other energy crops threaten to damage water quality and quantity, the National Research Council report says.

Water supply problems caused by irrigators loom at regional and local levels — particularly in the arid northern and southern plains, the report says. Big corn crops could drain water reserves in the Ogallala aquifer, an underground reservoir that stretches 800 miles from west Texas to South Dakota and Wyoming.

The aquifer — which provides water for a fifth of all the nation’s irrigated land — is already being lowered as there has been inadequate rainfall to replenish it, said Jerald Schnoor, a University of Iowa professor who chaired the panel. Any additional corn planting or other irrigated agriculture would only “exacerbate” the problem, he said.

Schnoor urged Congress to pursue policies that would encourage sustainable practices and encourage better technology for increased production efficiency.

A similar report last month from Environmental Defense, an advocacy group, said ethanol production could increase demand for scarce water supplies by 2 billion gallons a year.

Most of NRC panel’s predictions are based on estimated amounts of water and fertilizer needed for corn. The committee said “knowledge gaps” prevent reliable assessments about water use on other potential feedstocks for cellulosic ethanol — switchgrass or native grasses — but that they should have less of an effect on water quality per unit of energy.

The panel also said that the pressure on water supplies could be lessened with new developments in crop production, such as using genetically modified crops that are less thirsty or irrigating with wastewater that would be unfit for food crops.


Matt Hartwig, a spokesman for the ethanol industry trade group, the Renewable Fuels Association, said the industry is “very conscious of its use of natural resources” and is developing new technologies to improve water use.

The National Research Council convened the committee in response the country’s growing appetite for ethanol and other alternative fuels. U.S. capacity to make ethanol has spiked about 28 percent this year to nearly 7 billion gallons.

Those numbers are expected to grow even more. President Bush set a national goal of producing 35 billion gallons per year of alternative motor fuels, including ethanol, by 2017. Congress is considering a host of new incentives and subsidies for the fuels in energy legislation and the farm bill.

Environmentalists say potential water problems in the NRC report highlight the need for beefed-up farm bill conservation programs, to give farmers incentives to manage water, use buffer zones or to put some land in conservation.

“To deliver on the promise of biofuels, Congress must dramatically increase funding for farm bill conservation programs and reform them to get more conservation per dollar,” said Jonathan Kaplan of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Julie Sibbing of National Wildlife Federation said Congress should support cellulosic ethanol made from native grasses, trees and other plants that would require no irrigation. “As these new technologies come on line, they will be key to our future clean energy production,” Sibbing said.

“The stage is now set for direct competition for grain between the 800 million people who own automobiles, and the world’s 2 billion poorest people.” – Lester Brown, Earth Policy Institute, speaking to the U.S. Senate

Bio-fuels will impact the water supply around the world. We all need to be informed about the choices we make, and how those choices are interconnected.