Farmers in the Northern Plains use considerably more water to produce a gallon of corn ethanol than growers in other parts of the country, according to a new government report examining whether increased biofuels use could drain the nation's water resources.
An ethanol industry group said the report offers little new insight and the vast majority of ethanol is produced from rain-fed corn.
The November study from the Government Accountability Office quotes Argonne National Laboratory data that said farmers in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas use, on average, 323.6 gallons of water to produce one gallon of ethanol from corn, with all but 3 of those gallons used for irrigation.
The GAO said that's 20 to 30 times the amount of water used in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's two other main corn producing regions, where rainfall is more plentiful.
The region that includes Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and Missouri uses 10 gallons of water for every gallon of ethanol, while the region encompassing Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan uses 16.8 gallons of water.
"As demand for water from various sectors increases and places additional stress on already constrained supplies, the effects of expanded biofuel production may need to be considered," the GAO noted in its report.
Geoff Cooper, vice president of research for the Renewable Fuels Association, said it's disingenuous to suggest increased ethanol production is somehow driving irrigated corn acreage. He quoted a National Renewable Energy Laboratory article that said 96 percent of corn used for ethanol production is not irrigated.
"We've always irrigated about 12 or 13 percent of the corn crop, and we expect that to continue, with or without ethanol production," Cooper said.
The report also failed to put ethanol's water profile in context with other energy sources and didn't note the marked improvement in biofuels plants' water usage over the years, Cooper said. Biorefineries use 3 gallons of water or less to produce a gallon of ethanol, he said.
"Just 10 years ago, the average would have been closer to 4 1/2 or 5 gallons," Cooper said.
The GAO report, prepared for the House committee on science and technology, noted that cellulosic ethanol produced from next-generation feedstocks such as corn stover and perennial grasses could do a better job conserving water, but more study is needed.
Cooper said advances also are being made in the way corn uses water as seed companies develop more drought tolerant hybrids that require less water.