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Some Fear Biofuel Production Will Dry Up Water Supplies

April 14, 2009

As corn farmers in the U.S. begin readying their crops, many critics claim that increased pressure to produce large portions of crops for biofuels is robbing the public’s water resources.

Kansas corn farmer Merl “Buck” Rexford told Reuters he hopes to produce more than 150 bushels an acre with this year’s crop. Like many American corn farmers, a large portion of Rexford’s crop will go to an ethanol production plant.

Backers of biofuels like corn-based ethanol say it reduces dangerous greenhouse gas emissions, which have been linked to global warming, and it is a valuable substitute that will lead the nation in a direction away from dependence on foreign oil.

“We really have to ask ourselves, do we want to be driving with renewable fuels or with gasoline made from petroleum resources,” Brent Erickson, executive vice president at the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which backs ethanol, told Reuters.

But critics say increased biofuel production is coming at a high cost for Americans, as increased demand for biofuels is leading to a larger demand for water.

Additionally, it takes a substantial amount of energy to create corn-based ethanol, which could prove to be counterproductive, critics claim.

“Biofuels are off the charts in water consumption. We’re definitely looking at something where the cure may be worse than the disease,” said Brooke Barton, a manager of corporate accountability for CERES, a group backed by institutional investors focused on the financial risks of climate change.

According to Reuters, corn plants require about 20 inches of soil moisture per acre to grow a good crop, but most farmers rely on rain rather than irrigation. Manufacturing plants that convert corn’s starch into fuel have a larger thirst for public water supplies.

A typical plant uses about 4.2 gallons of water to make one gallon of ethanol, according to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. That’s about 3 gallons of water for every one gallon of fuel, according to the ethanol industry.

As legislators continue to push for the use of ethanol and federal mandates are being put in place, many groups are voicing their concerns that population growth and increased demand for energy will lead to a global drought.

“We’re headed in the wrong direction and this problem is not going away,” Mark Muller, program director at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, told Reuters.

“This water issue is like the financial crisis… and I’m afraid something awful is going to happen.”

“Water use could be a limiting factor (for ethanol) if we don’t introduce and support more water-saving technologies, ” added the Institute’s Jim Kleinschmit.

Those in support of ethanol will not deny the large amount of water that goes into production, but they claim that the corn crop relies primarily on rain rather than ground water.

In January 2009, there were 170 ethanol plants operating in the United States and 24 more new or expanding plants, according to Reuters.

Freshwater demand for consumption is expected to increase 25 percent by 2030 globally as the world population expands from 6.6 billion to about 8 billion and more than 9 billion in 2050, according to Ceres.

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