Critics Mislead on Ethanol's Water Use

Efficiency at biofuels plants is increasing.

As part of their ongoing efforts to convince Nebraskans that increased corn and ethanol production is detrimental to the state, critics are focusing more and more on the emotional issue of water, says Jon Holzfaster, chairman of the Nebraska Corn Board.

More specifically, the criticism revolves around the amount of water used to produce corn and ethanol. For example, anti-ethanol groups regularly point out that it takes three gallons of water to produce one gallon of ethanol.

"What the critics often fail to do, however, is put that water use in its proper perspective," says Holzfaster, a farmer from Paxton. "They fail to mention that it takes 94 gallons of water to process crude oil into one gallon of gasoline. To produce just one average-sized Sunday newspaper takes 150 gallons of water. To irrigate an acre of a golf course requires more than 680,000 gallons of water each year.

"The point is that every person and every industry in Nebraska - be it for manufacturing, recreation, municipalities or agriculture - uses water in some form," Holzfaster says.

In the case of ethanol, Holzfaster said the water use efficiency of ethanol plants has greatly improved. "The amount of water used to produce a gallon of ethanol is less than half of what was needed just a decade ago," he adds. "In addition, much of the water used in the ethanol production process is recycled within the plant or treated and released back into the environment, while some remains in the distillers grains co-product, a high-quality livestock feed."

Technology and know-how also are helping corn producers reduce their water usage. "Research is helping develop better tools for farmers that do irrigate to know when--or when not--to irrigate. We can monitor soil moisture and plant transpiration and more efficiently apply water only when needed. These new irrigation technologies, combined with advanced hybrids and reduced tillage, are dramatically improving water efficiency and conservation in corn production."

Holzfaster also notes that, across the U.S., only 14% of corn acres use irrigation to supplement rainfall.

John Cavanaugh, Omaha attorney and former U.S. congressman, says that all Nebraskans have a role to play in protecting and using water effectively and efficiently. According to Cavanaugh, a former trustee of the Platte River Whooping Crane Maintenance Trust, as Nebraska's economy and population grows, water quantity and quality will become even more critical.

"Fortunately, corn growers and ethanol producers have steadily become more efficient in their water use," Cavanaugh says. "There are also good regulations in place to protect our water resources. In many parts of the state, in fact, no net increase in water usage is allowed. This means new ethanol plants can't use 'new' water--they have to buy water rights from others."

Cavanaugh says he's confident that corn and ethanol producers will continue to reduce their water demands in the future. "After all, they are experts in responsibly transforming water into even greater economic successes for Nebraska," he says.

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