A state water board on Wednesday unexpectedly pushed reducing groundwater consumption in western Kansas toward the top of a priority list of the Kansas Water Office’s new five-year strategic plan.
This is partly a response to the added strain on the declining aquifer that additional ethanol plants would use, and the additional irrigation needed to grow more corn – needed to supply those ethanol plants.
The Ogallala aquifer which supplies groundwater for agriculture, homes and industry in western Kansas, is running low. I don’t need to repeat the points I made about the troubles we’re getting into with water in the West, since I’m pretty happy with the discussion a few days ago. The State is working to retire water rights and reduce the drain on the aquifer, but the new emphasis on biofuels will place new demands on it.
One of the problems with ethanol is that the process of producing and distilling it is surprisingly water intensive, and then removing the water is energy intensive. In principle, hydrocarbons like butanol, which separates from water with much less distillation, could be dramatically more energy efficient.
Western Kansas is mostly invested in ranching and wheat farming. Corn requires more rainfall, so it’s found in eastern Kansas and on east to the coast. Wheat yields have been falling, perhaps a result of warmer weather and periodic droughts. With ethanol production driving up prices for corn, farmers are ramping up their planting of that more valuable and water-intensive crop.
If there were a viable system for producing cellulosic ethanol, those farmers would do better to plant those fields in native grasses. That would build up the soil, require no irrigation, pesticides or herbicides, and could actually yield more useable biomass than conventional farming would. I’m not sure what the water requirements of cellulosic ethanol are, but I think they may be substantial as well. Cellulosic butanol would be better, but my sense is that that technology is even further off.