Managing Water for Future Ethanol Sustainability

John Davis

The amount of water that goes into growing the corn that goes into ethanol has been a big topic of conversation between those for and against production of the green fuel. That’s why it is a topic of conversation at the Farm Foundation’s Transition to a Bioeconomy: Environmental and Rural Impacts Conference in St. Louis this week. This gathering of government officials, academics and industry leaders is designed to take on the tough questions facing Rural America as it moves to a bioeconomy.

One of the people in the ethanol/water discussion is Noel Gollehon, a senior economist with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. He says the amount of irrigated corn is particularly concerning.

“About 15 percent of corn that is in counties that have ethanol plants is irrigated.” He adds that it takes 2,500 gallons for a bushel of corn. Now, while a large amount of that is grown in areas that uses the natural rainfall, what is worrisome is the corn grown in the drier western plains, where it equates to 750-1,000 gallons of irrigation water for each gallon of ethanol using irrigated corn as a feedstock. He says the answer might be cellulosic ethanol. However, he says it is no panacea and might be just as damaging to finite underground water sources.

“Working through this transition (to a bioeconomy), we have to use what we have,” says Gollehon. “But as we look forward, we hope we can develop cellulosic-based ethanol that doesn’t rely on that type of crop that has to be irrigated in those environments.”

Gollehon says we’ve been irrigating in this country for about 100 years, and if we want, we can keep doing that until all the water is gone… if we want to go down that route. But he believes that conversations, such as this one at the Farm Foundation’s conference, coupled with new technologies will get people to look at longer-term sustainability.

Hear more of my conversation with Gollehon here: [audio:]

Cellulosic, Ethanol, Farm Foundation, News