Friday, July 20, 2007

Water, Water Everywhere

The debate over ethanol crops in Iowa offers some useful insights into the cornucopian imagination.

Certain people - let's call 'em "terrorists" - are arguing that because expanding ethanol crops will consume billions of gallons of water, the amount of water available in Iowa's aquifers has some bearing on whether the project is viable. Basically, they're attempting to balance supply with demand, and coming up short. Therefore, they see conservation - including mandatory water recycling - as a necessity.

Other people - we'll call them "realists" - point out that these policies might prevent them from doing something they really, really want to do:

Such mandates could damage Iowa's growing renewable fuels industry, they said.
In other words, making an elementary concession to reality could stunt the growth of an industry based on fantasy. Never mind the polite concessions regulators are already making to the fiction that ethanol is economically viable whether there's an inexhaustible supply of water or not; we must cast away all doubt, or be revealed as enemies of Progress.

And what exactly is "water shortage" supposed to mean, anyway? The stuff falls from the sky daily in the rainforest, thunders by the cubic mile over Niagara Falls every week, and is a copious byproduct of melting ice. What with the progress being made on desalinization, we may even be able to harvest the tears of the poor. For now, though, the market decrees that these options are less economical than pumping out aquifers that supply roughly 80 percent of Iowans with their drinking water:
For $25, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources grants a 10-year license for [ethanol] plants to pump as much water as they need from the ground.
This system works, obviously, and will continue to work until someone can prove that it doesn't:
State Sen. David Johnson, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he will not support regulations on how ethanol facilities use water until he sees proof that Iowa's aquifers are in trouble.
As for me, I refuse to stop writing checks until I see evidence that I'm overdrawn. In fact, I'm going to write a check for two dollars this very morning, in order to buy Sen. Johnson a copy of Iowa's Groundwater Basics: A Geological Guide to the Occurrence, Use, and Vulnerability of Iowa's Aquifers, which was published by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and includes this passage:
Where numerous wells withdraw large quantities of water over time...regional declines in water levels may occur. In Iowa, the most widespread of these declines has occurred in the extensive Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer. Regional water levels have dropped about 100 feet in this aquifer since use began in the late 1800s, with the greatest lowering of water-levels near major pumping centers. Other declines of a more local nature have occurred, such as those in the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City areas where the Silurian aquifer is heavily used.
In related news, ever-expanding ethanol crops in the vicinity of Chesapeake Bay are expected to poison it with agricultural runoff:
The study forecasted that farmers in the bay watershed area will field more than half a million acres of corn over the next five years, reports The Washington Post. Corn fields usually produce more polluted runoff than other crops, creating a problem for the bay.

“It’s going in the opposite direction from where we want to go,” Jim Pease, a Virginia Tech professor and one of the study’s authors, told the newspaper.
It seems logical that increased runoff from the ethanol boom could pose a problem for Iowa's groundwater, too.

But I suppose we'd better wait until we see evidence. We wouldn't want to be irresponsible.

(Photo: Coffee Cup Watertower at Stanton, Iowa. Via Roadside America.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. The whole ethanol thing is a a scam that costs more energy than it produces. Why not let that extend to aquifers as well?