Growing Corn For Ethanol Is Water Wasteful

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Water use regulations should be tightened against growing corn for ethanol, if we act according to common sense. Water is wasted everywhere by the general public, industry and agriculture, but using water in areas of the country where water is limited for corn ethanol production seems to make little sense.

Because growing crops requires so much water, agricultural use of water is the first to be targeted for recouping water for use by other segments of the U.S. economy, and corn is one of the most water-consumptive crops to grow.

The keynote speaker at the Irrigation Association Show in Phoenix earlier this month suggested that water use should be more stringently overseen in every state of the nation. And he pointed his finger at corn producers and the ethanol industry more than any other segment of agriculture, especially corn production where irrigation is required.

“Energy policy in the United States has developed in utter disregard to water implications for different kinds of energy production,” said Robert Glennon, University of Arizona professor of law and public policy and an author about water-use planning.

“The poster child for me on this is ethanol. It may seem surprising that even in a modern refinery that recycles its water, four gallons of water is required to refine a gallon of ethanol. So, a 50-million-gallon plant needs 200 million gallons of water.”

Glennon went on to note that “corn is a very water consumptive crop requiring as much as 2,500 gallons of water to grow enough corn to produce one gallon of ethanol.” In his mind that is a low-value crop for use of a high-value resource. When push comes to shove, water needs to be used for much higher value results than growing corn.

Glennon blamed whoever has backed reactive legislation through the federal government and state legislators for water-wasteful biofuels energy policy. He used California as an example.

“I want you to remember three years ago that Congress proclaimed by 2022 we should produce 36 billion gallons of ethanol or biofuels including ethanol. That is a lot of water when you do the math. To show how out of control the idea of producing biofuels is related to supply, California has a goal of producing one billion gallons of ethanol in 10 years. That would require every drop of water that goes through the Bay Delta that currently irrigates seven million acres of the most productive agricultural land in the country, the Central Valley, and the water provided to Southern California cities—water diverted to growing corn. If that is not madness then I don’t know what madness could be,” he said.

In somewhat of a summary, Glennon said, “We know that it requires a lot of water to produce energy. Conversely it takes a lot of energy to move, pump, cleanse and deliver water.” He said one-fifth of all the electricity used in California is to move water around and treat it.

Listening to Glennon, it was hard for me to not agree with some of what he said. And here we are back to the controversy of food versus fuel, too, which the activist professor didn’t even mention other than advocating the growing of low-water use crops versus high-water use crops. It is hard to argue with that logic.

By Richard Keller, AgProfessional Editor


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