Ethanol Boom Saps Water

Mike Adamson remembers when water wasn't such a problem. As a kid growing up on his family's cattle feedlot along the Colorado-Kansas border, "you could dig a post hole and see water runnin' in the bottom," he recalls. Today, Adamson is 48 and in charge of the family business, Adamson Brothers and Sons Feedlot, a holding ranch for cattle as they go to market. And the water, he says, is disappearing. "The lakes are gone. The wetlands are gone." In fact, Adamson adds, entire stretches of the nearby Republican River are gone.

In the arid regions of the American West, water has always been a precious, liquid gold. But in Adamson's home of Yuma County, two hours east of Denver, the stakes just got higher. Thanks to the boom in ethanol production spurred by green-energy concerns, corn farmers in Yuma County--one of the top three corn-producing counties in the country--are enjoying a new prosperity.

But the green-fuel boom touted as a clean, eco-friendly alternative to gasoline is proving to have its own dirty costs. Growing corn demands lots of water, and, in Eastern Colorado, this means intensive irrigation from an already stressed water table, the great Ogallala aquifer. One sign of trouble: in just the past two decades, farmers tapping into the local aquifers have helped to shorten the North Fork of the Republican River, which starts in Yuma County, by 10 miles. The ethanol boom will only hasten the drop further, say scientist and engineers studying the aquifers. The region's water shortage has pitted water-hungry farmers against one another. And lurking in the cornrows: lawsuits and interstate water squabbles could shut down Eastern Colorado's estimated $500 million annual ethanol bonanza with the swing of a judge's gavel. Collectively, "[ethanol] is clearly not sustainable," says Jerald Schnoor, a professor of engineering at the University of Iowa and cochairman of an October 2007 National Research Council study for Congress that was critical of ethanol. "Production will have serious impacts in water-stressed regions." And in Eastern Colorado, there's lots of water stress.

Still, with so much money growing in the fields, the current problems haven't stopped anyone on Colorado's plains. "Finally, here's the alternative market that farmers have been working toward for decades," said Mark Sponsler, executive director of the Colorado Corn Growers Association. The state's farmers planted a near record acreage of corn in 2007, up nearly 20 percent from the year before. It's not hard to see why. After hovering around $2 a bushel for nearly 50 years, corn is trading at about $4.50 today. Meanwhile, the Bush administration has called for ethanol to displace 15 percent of the nation's gasoline supply by 2015, double that by 2030. And Yuma is preparing. The state's two ethanol plants have been built nearby in just the past few years, with a third on the way. "It sure is a good time," says Byron Weathers, a farmer with 2,500 acres of corn. "It's definitely been a big plus for our state. The whole nation, really."

But the effort to keep the good times rolling locally has actually fueled a bitter Hatfield-vs.-McCoy atmosphere in these parts. "There's definitely tension between families," one long-time Yuma corn farmer said, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation. Here's the trouble: eastern Colorado is painfully dry, but it sits on top of one of the world's largest underground freshwater oceans--the Ogallala Aquifer, which stretches from Montana to New Mexico. Seepage from the Ogallala in eastern Colorado creates the headwaters for the North Fork of the Republican River, which flows past the Adamson family farm, and into Nebraska and Kansas. But before the Republican reaches the border, 4,000 groundwater wells tap the Ogallala, which depletes the river further and faster than rain or winter run-off can recharge it. Near Yuma, the water table has dropped more than 100 feet in the past few decades, drying out Adamson's post holes.

In Yuma County, the battle is between farmers who irrigate 400,000 corn acres with groundwater against those who draw surface water from the river using drainage ditches, like Adamson. (Adamson uses the water to grow less-water intensive crops, like wheat, that he can feed to the cattle). As the wells draw down the water table, the river flow drops, too. So, when the valves are opened, the water barely trickles into irrigation ditches, like Adamson's, whose family's right to draw that water according to state law dates back to the 1800s. "We're the canary in the coal mine," Adamson said. If there's little water in his ditches, the river is running low.

To be sure, scientists have been watching the depletion of the Ogallala for decades. Years of drought haven't helped either. But the corn-based ethanol boom has added pressure, and money, to keep the tap on. So to save the river and their water, Adamson and a group of surface water-right holders sued in 2005 to shut off the wells. A hearing is set for June. If they win, hundreds, maybe thousands of groundwater wells irrigating corn could be shut off instantly. "It would devastate the economy," says Doug Sanderson, the city manager of Yuma, the county seat.

Yuma County farmers face another water threat, this one from neighboring Kansas. The downstream state has struggled for decades to get its fair share of the Republican's waters. Tensions peaked eight years ago when Kansas brought a lawsuit against Colorado and Nebraska to the U.S. Supreme Court--and won. Today, the two states still owe Kansas enough water to supply a small city for a year. But, like a shop-a-holic with credit cards, Colorado's groundwater wells keep pumping. "We're at a junction with the interstate compact," says Dave Barfield, chief engineer for Kansas. "[Kansas] farmers are being hurt. They are telling me to go get 'em…. And we are." Last month, Kansas demanded its water, suggesting Colorado and Nebraska shut down groundwater wells. If things get worse, the Supreme Court could order it. The threat has sent Colorado's politicians, farmers and others scrambling, and proposed solutions are as perplexing as the problems.

To send Kansas its water--and keep the Colorado well on--a state legislator is pushing to drain the Bonny Reservoir, a popular border lake called the "crown jewel" of eastern Colorado. It's a key stopping point for migratory birds, a fishery maintained by the state, and leased by Colorado from the federal government, who are not likely to let the water go. Still, the bill's sponsor, state Sen. Greg Brophy of Yuma, has made the message clear: "We can't value fish over farmers."

Yuma corn farmers have come up with their own idea. Last month, the local Republic River Water Conservation District, a board responsible for keeping Colorado in water compliance with Kansas, approved the funding for a multi-million dollar pipeline that will pump water into the Republican River from a farm willing to retire 6,000 acres. Water will flow to Kansas. Problem solved. The source of that water? The Ogallala Aquifer. It's an idea some have called robbing Peter to pay Paul. "It is to a degree," says Ken Knox, Colorado's chief deputy state engineer. "But we're trying to maintain the entire social-economic production in this part of Colorado."

What's becoming clear is that the price to keep ethanol profitable is not cheap. The purchase of those wells will cost more than $50 million--a market-maker price tag that's even catching the eye of the surface-water right owners. "You know, money is an enticing thing," Adamson said. "It's great to be noble. Sometimes it's hard to be noble. But you've got to take care of your family." One attorney close to the case is more succinct: "[Surface-water owners] are probably just waiting for the right price." Should the right price come along, Ogallala's groundwater will be left uncontested, at least in Colorado, a likely scenario. As for the Republican River? "We know we have a finite resource. We know it won't last forever," says Yuma City Manager Sanderson. "But we certainly don't respect the resource more than we respect the people."

Scientists and engineers say there's a clear lesson from the Republican River saga: water and energy are inextricably linked. "They will be the two driving forces of the future," says Knox. "And we're starting to see the future in this region." Professor Schnoor calls ethanol simply "a bridge fuel" to undiscovered and truly environmentally-friendly technology. Meanwhile, with warm months just around the corner and a meeting with state officials in Denver to discuss the pipeline that he opposes, Adamson is frustrated. "Trying to solve problems by using the same old techniques doesn't solve the problem," Adamson says. "We're going to make the area a desert. It's going to be uninhabitable." And that would be a high price to pay.