Position Statement on Biofuels and Water Resources

March 2007 American Rivers The use of biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and our dependence on foreign oil. Because of these potential benefits, advocates at both the federal and state levels promote increasing biofuel production in the United States using domestically grown crops. As a result of existing and anticipated policy changes, the demand for certain crops, particularly corn, has increased substantially, as has the demand for biofuels production facilities. In short, biofuels production is a rapidly emerging industry. The rapid expansion of biofuel production in the United States could threaten already-stressed water supplies. In areas with substantial commitment of water to irrigated agriculture, boosting production of biofuel crops like corn may spur additional water use conflicts and lead to long-term problems with water quality and availability for fish and wildlife, recreation, and other important community uses. It is imperative to produce biofuels in a sustainable manner that does not unnecessarily dewater and pollute rivers and other freshwater sources that provide drinking water for communities, recreational areas, and fish and wildlife habitat. Unfortunately, in the rush to increase biofuel production, the potential impacts on the nation’s water resources have received little attention. Rivers, streams, lakes, and wetlands could be severely degraded if we do not develop the biofuel industry in a manner that protects our water resources. The following facts indicate that the need is urgent to establish policies that protect water resources in the face of rapidly expanding biofuels production: • Irrigated corn is a water-intensive crop, and the primary focus of current efforts to increase ethanol production. Corn-based ethanol production is rapidly expanding in places like the Great Plains states and is expected to grow in the Columbia River basin in the Pacific Northwest. In both areas, water is in short supply and many rivers and streams are already too low during irrigation season to support fish and wildlife and recreational uses. • Corn has nearly doubled in price because of increased demand for ethanol. The result is increased financial pressure to convert existing acreage from lower value crops such as hay or wheat to corn, or to seek conversion of Conservation Reserve Program acres back into corn production. The USDA predicts that farmers will plant four to eight million more acres of corn in the next three years, which will result in greater water use and likely increased use of fertilizer and pesticides. To help avoid severe impacts to our rivers, streams, and other water resources from biofuel production, American Rivers offers the following three principles as a starting point to guide our nationwide efforts to increase biofuel production: 1. Biofuel crops must be grown in places and in a manner that do not degrade water quality or drain rivers, streams, lakes, and wetlands to a level that impairs the health of aquatic ecosystems and the communities that depend on them. 2. Federal and state policies should guide biofuel crop production in ways that do not exacerbate existing, or cause new, water shortages or water quality problems. The policy focus should be on increasing biofuel production on existing acres in the most water-efficient manner – essentially, helping farmers do more with less water. 3. Research necessary to determine how best to produce biofuels without harming water resources should be a top priority and adequate federal and state funding should be allocated for that purpose. For example, some forms of cellulosic ethanol may require less water than corn-based ethanol. Public funds should go to research that compares water impacts of biofuel options and advances the profitable production of more water-efficient biofuel crops. American Rivers will continue to work with policy-makers and stakeholders to ensure that biofuel production proceeds in a sustainable manner that protects our nation’s freshwater resources. For more information, contact Chad Smith at (402) 423-7930 or csmith@americanrivers.org, or Rob Masonis at (206) 213-0330 x. 12 or rmasonis@americanrivers.org