Aggressive promotion of corn as bio-fuel is sucking water tables dry in US and could mean ruin for farmers before long.
Steve 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.
Indeed times are good in the High Plains, meaning Eastern Colorado, western Kansas, western Nebraska, central and eastern Montana, eastern New Mexico, western Oklahoma, northwestern Texas, southeastern Wyoming and parts of western South Dakota and North Dakota.
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, notes Stan Cox, a Kansas plant breeder, writing in AlterNet.
A torrent of cash will be flowing through the nation's corn-growing regions, but the biggest price will be paid in water.
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.
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 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).
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.
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.
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.
The US farmers 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."
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."
In short, economic crash and ecological ruin seem to be the terrible fate in store for the farmers of the High Plains unless the senseless drive for the corn-based fuel is halted, Stan Cox warns.