Sucked Dry

In the rush to cash in on ethanol, the Midwest might be giving away its greatest natural resource

Despite these concerns, many states and the federal government have failed to monitor the water issue closely, and acknowledge they don't know if ethanol plants are using more water than their aquifers can withstand.

Nationally, government oversight for water use is spotty, at best. In fact, a call from this reporter was the first inquiry the Environmental Protection Agency's press office in Washington, D.C., had received regarding ethanol and water consumption. "The state has quite a bit of authority," says EPA spokesman John Millett.

Yet states don't do much better in tracking the issue. In a recent paper, "Water Use by Ethanol Plants: Potential Challenges," Muller and co-author Dr. Dennis Keeney discovered that "minimal data is available on groundwater depletion, and the scope of future water availability is not clear." The study also found that there are no public records available that document water use by ethanol plants in the United States.

In a review of ethanol-producing states, it appears that only Minnesota keeps tabs on water use by specific plants and the amount of ethanol produced. Those numbers are reported to the DNR Division of Waters by the ethanol plants themselves.

But even Minnesota lags in some areas. The Groundwater Protection Act of 1989 required the DNR to map and identify sensitive groundwater areas.

"The DNR basically hasn't done it," says Brimmer. "We're now in year 18; I think we could have made a little more progress."

Ethanol plants in Iowa are required to apply for a water withdrawal permit from the Iowa DNR anytime the use is greater than 25,000 gallons of water per day, but government officials say the process has no authority.

"The way they are funded, they feel they're more of a registration program than a permit program," says Libra, of Iowa's DNR.

Permits are issued by a staff of about two people who make decisions based on in-office assessments and no fieldwork. Basic information about groundwater availability and permitting isn't readily available, if at all. Some of the groundwater data is more than 20 years old.

Iowa ethanol plants must maintain up-to-date water use records and file them with the DNR, but the permits "are not given the review they should be," says Libra. "The problem with that, of course, is that when you don't have anything to do with it, it goes into what we call a shoe box in the back of somebody's office."

The Iowa cities of Ames and Nevada share the same aquifer, which the Lincoln Way Energy ethanol plant also taps into. In fact, the 50-million-gallon facility never applied to the state for a water use permit, instead using Nevada's city water supply pipe.

Simpkins, the hydrology professor at Iowa State, is currently mapping the aquifer for the city of Ames to determine if the added water stress could be a problem in the future. Although there is ample water now, Nevada is looking to drill another well, and in the past, the ethanol plant has discussed doubling its size.

Nevada has a population of about 6,000 people. With the amount of ethanol Lincoln Way is preparing to produce, the city is going to use 200 million gallons of water per year. That's nearly twice as much water as the city was drawing from the aquifer before the ethanol plant was there, Simpkins says. "It's like doubling the size of Nevada."

Some worry that in the case of a drought, big business will take priority over the average household.

"What do we do during those times where water is in shorter supply?" asks Susan Heathcote, a water expert with the Iowa Environmental Council. "There may not be enough for everybody."

Politicians have embraced ethanol, seeing it as a way to court everybody from farmers to environmentalists to hawks who want to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil. Many of the high-profile presidential candidates, including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Rudy Giuliani, have called for the expansion of ethanol.

With the recent political support for ethanol, many investors looking to get into the boom are citing the Granite Falls plant as precedent. They, too, are requesting that the DNR issue a temporary start-up permit, hoping to find a sustainable water source later.

So far, the DNR has been denying those permits. For instance, the department nixed plans to build a 100-million-gallon Cargill plant in Pipestone, fearing that the local water system couldn't support it.

Ethanol alone won't solve the energy crisis. And if we're not careful, it could create an entirely new problem.

"Ethanol is a bridge fuel," says Bill Fink, a former Iowa state senator and energy expert with the Iowa Environmental Council. "Putting all of our energy eggs in one basket here would be very, very foolish."

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