I've written previously that, among other things, increasing corn ethanol production may drain water supplies and be harm water quality. The General Accounting Office has issued a new report that supports the idea that, even if ethanol is a good domestic alternative to foreign fossil fuel, we need to consider the other resources we'll pour into the ground to get it.
The report notes that South Dakota is part of a twelve-state region that produced 89% of America's corn in 2007 and 2008 and 95% of the corn ethanol in 2007. The states in USDA Region 7 (that's us, along with North Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas) rely heavily on irrigation to get corn to grow. In our neck of the woods, growing one bushel of corn requires 865 gallons of irrigated water. In the other big corn-producing states (the rest of the Midwest, from Minnesota and Iowa over to Michigan and Ohio), it rains enough that the same bushel of corn requires only 19 to 38 gallons of irrigation.
Given an average yield in 2008 of 153.8 bushels per acre, another section of grassland turned to corn grown with irrigation will consume another 88 million gallons of water. That's as much water as South Dakotans consume for domestic use every eleven days. And that's a single section turned to corn. Look bigger: South Dakota's ethanol refineries use 291 million bushels of corn each year. That corn took a staggering 252 billion gallons of water to grow, almost 90 years worth of South Dakota domestic water consumption.
Ninety years of domestic water supply, traded for one year of ethanol production. How long can we sustain that trade-off?
p.s.: U.S. Farm Service data suggest that between 2002 and 2007, 475,000 acres of grassland in North and South Dakota were newly plowed for crop production.
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