Climate Wire: Rising Use of Corn Ethanol Stresses Midwestern Aquifers

January 29, 2013

Elizabeth Harball, Jan. 28- Biofuel production is often touted as a boon to rural development, but a University of Iowa engineering professor is worried about the effect of corn ethanol plants on his and other states' water supplies.

At a biofuels energy symposium hosted by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies last week in Washington, D.C., professor Jerald Schnoor said corn ethanol production facilities require large quantities of high-purity water during the fermentation process.

This water is obtained from underground aquifers, and as ethanol production reaches a fever pitch in Iowa, the state's water supply is threatened. Even in 2009, Iowa state geologists warned that the Jordan aquifer was being pumped at an unsustainable rate in several counties, exceeding the state's 1975 base line within the next two decades.

“We're near record devotion of acres to corn right now,” said Schnoor, who also headed the Iowa Climate Change Advisory Council in 2007. Up to 40 percent of corn production in the United States now goes to ethanol fuel. Schnoor estimated that up to three-quarters of corn crops in his home state are devoted to ethanol production, stressing Iowa's groundwater sources.

He cited the Lincolnway Energy Plant in Nevada, Iowa, as an example. This plant, which Schnoor acknowledged was older and less efficient than newer plants, produces 50 million gallons of ethanol every year by processing 100,000 acres of corn. He said this process requires 200 million gallons of water per year.


Editor's note: To learn more, check out our Infographic on Biofuels and the Environment

Editor's note: Original attribution to Scientific America has been changed to Climate Wire on 2/1.