Are ethanol plants draining the state’s water resources?

The insatiable thirst of corn ethanol plants springing up in Minnesota’s countryside has state officials and a few key legislators wondering about the effects on ground water supplies in areas where there’s scant information about the resource.

“From what I see, water supply isn’t considered until all other plant-siting decisions are made, and that’s got to change,” said state Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, who chairs the Senate Environment Finance Division. “Water availability has to come first, and I’m talking with other legislators about what can be done here.”

Minnesota’s 17 ethanol plants are expected to grow by five this year, pushing total water consumed to more than four billion gallons, a number that could easily double by the end of 2009. The growth is mostly occurring in southwestern Minnesota, an area where water may be more limited than in other parts of the state.

It isn’t only legislative leaders who are concerned.

Earlier this month, Brad Moore, commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), won support of the multi-agency Environmental Quality Board (EQB) to undertake a study of the cumulative effects of water consumed by the nascent ethanol industry that’s on an expansion fast track. EQB staff will report next month on how it intends to study the water issue, but it’s already known that the state has skimpy information on underground water. In a report (PDF) issued last April, the EQB listed at least seven major information gaps in water supply and it concluded: “The label of Minnesota as water rich does not fit as well as once thought.”

More and more plants
The MPCA’s citizens board, which prompted Moore’s letter to the EQB, has been expressing open concern over the lack of adequate understanding of the full impacts of how much water is appropriated by the industry.

“It really frustrates me that nearly every month we hear another permit request for one of these plants, and yet we know practically nothing about the cumulative effect of all the water being used by this industry,” said Board Member Barbara Battiste of Minneapolis. At its next meeting, the Board will hear a permit application for POET Biorefining’s new Glenville West plant near Albert Lea, Minn., that will produce 65 million gallons of ethanol annually — and consume another 20 million to 25 million gallons of water.

While the industry is moving to reduce its water consumption, the accepted industry-wide average is that about 4.2 gallons for water are used for every gallon of ethanol produced. This year, ethanol production is expected to surpass the one-billion gallon mark, which is 14 times the size of the industry just a decade ago.

Jim Japs, head of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) office that oversees groundwater, says the permitting process for the ethanol industry is sufficient to identify local water availability and potential impacts, drying up nearby wells “cone of depression” of groundwater levels.

State agencies criticized
But at least one geologist, Jeff Broberg of Rochester, Minn., says that the MPCA and DNR haven’t done their jobs in assessing impacts from MinnEnergy’s proposed ethanol plant in Eyota, Minn. Broberg, who sits on the Legislative Citizens Commission on Minnesota’s Resources and who is president of the Minnesota Trout Association, wrote a detailed, blistering letter to Anderson and state Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the House Environment Finance Division.

Broberg said that DNR water tests for the Eyota plant have been much shorter than the 30 days the agency says it follows and that the MPCA’s air quality managers have sought ways to relax rules. His biggest concern is the effect of groundwater draw-down in the South Branch of the Whitewater River, renowned for its trout fishing.

Broberg wrote: “It looks like the fox is guarding the hen house and we have a state policy favoring ethanol development and a state system that caters to the project proposer.”

The MPCA’s ethanol manager, Myrna Halbach, acknowledged some instances of miscommunication with Broberg, but defended her agency. Among other things, Halbach said her team has undertaken to survey ethanol plant effects by regulatory agencies in other states that are experiencing similar rapid industry growth.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by John Farrell on 02/01/2008 - 12:55 pm.

    The water impact of ethanol production highlights the diseconomies of scale inherent in making biofuel production too large. In addition to pricing out farmer ownership and increasing transportation costs, the larger facilities draw substantially more water from the local supply. Disclaimer: we recently released a paper on the economies and diseconomies of scale in wind and ethanol production.

    The small and mid-sized plants that made the industry a Minnesota mainstay and allowed farmers to own production still provide a greater local economic benefit to the community, can compete with the largest plants, and have a much smaller water consumption footprint.

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