Category Archives: irrigation

Where is Groundwater Use Unsustainable in the U.S.?

Above: Trends in groundwater levels observed between 1949 and 2009. Negative (red/orange) indicates decline in groundwater level, while positive (blue) indicates a rise in groundwater level.
Source: Columbia Water Center.

My list of concerns about what’s wrong with farm policies here in the U.S. is fairly long, but if I had to name the two that I think are the most important, those two would be better protection of our soil and our groundwater. At present, there are not policies in place which are guarding either of these adequately, and this is short-sighted.

The California drought story has been featured prominently in the news, and included under that topic, we have seen a few articles about the unsustainable reliance upon groundwater for farming there, which is an under-reported story that has grave implications.

Which is why this new U.S. groundwater study out of Columbia University is important.

From the study’s summary:

In addition to confirming alarming depletion in well-known hot spots such as the Great Plains and Central California, the study identifies a number of other regions, including the lower Mississippi, along the Eastern Seaboard and in the Southeast where water tables are falling just as rapidly. Overall, the report concludes, between 1949 and 2009 groundwater levels declined throughout much of the continental U.S., suggesting that the nation’s long-term pattern of groundwater use is broadly unsustainable.

There are farmers in dryland farming regions of Nebraska and Iowa and other Midwestern states who have recently added wells to their farms following the drought of 2012, to help capitalize on strong commodity prices at the time. There is an Iowa community that has seen its groundwater level drop because of an ethanol plant coming in and using groundwater for its industrial water needs. Many communities in Minnesota are facing the problem of nitrate-polluted water in their wells, so they have to purchase and transport clean water for drinking. In California’s agricultural region of Paso Robles, vineyard owners, who use 67 percent of the basin’s groundwater, sued others to preserve their unrestricted access to their rapidly depleting groundwater.

The stories about the use of groundwater go on and on.

Forty percent of our population gets its drinking water from underground aquifers, and groundwater is used for 60 percent of agricultural irrigation, here in the U.S.

Regarding groundwater use, we should remind ourselves of the Native American concept… that we need to make decisions based upon whether or not they will benefit seven generations into the future, even if making those decisions requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine tree.

Source: Assessment of trends in groundwater levels across the United States. March 2014. By Tess Russo, Upmanu Lall, Hui Wen, Mary Williams. PDF.

IEA: World Water Day Awareness of Water Use in Energy Production

“Water availability is a growing concern for energy, and assessing the energy sector’s use of water is important in an increasingly water-constrained world” —IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven

Tomorrow is officially designated “World Water Day” and this week, the IEA has been trying to raise awareness about the amount of water used to produce energy – on Twitter. The chart below is from the IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2012 PDF “Water for Energy – Is Energy Becoming a Thirstier Resource?

Please take note of the fact that the bottom half of the chart relates to water requirements for producing biofuels, and also note the differences between the various biofuels water requirements. Especially, note the minimum for each biofuel, which is defined as “non-irrigated crops whose only water requirements are for processing into fuels.” (This chart should also help drive home the fact that using irrigated corn to produce ethanol is highly irrational and wastes a precious resource, something that should be corrected by policy – now.)

To follow, are some of the IEA’s tweets (and facts from the PDF linked above), (rewritten for clarity), that contain some very interesting statistics about water use in energy production:

It can take nearly 60 gallons of water to power a 60-Watt incandescent light bulb for 12 hours.

154.3 trillion gallons of freshwater are used in energy production per year.

Water requires energy, and energy requires water: Each kilowatt hour of electricity requires the withdrawal of approximately 25 gallons of water.

Energy depends on water for power generation, extraction, transport and processing of fossil fuels, and irrigation of biofuels feedstock crops.

Energy accounts for 15% of global water usage, and will consume ever more through 2035.

Global water withdrawals for energy production in 2010 were estimated at 583 billion cubic metres (bcm), or some 15% of the world’s total water withdrawals. Of that, water consumption – the volume withdrawn but not returned to its source – was 66 bcm. In the New Policies Scenario, withdrawals increase by about 20% between 2010 and 2035, but consumption rises by a more dramatic 85%. These trends are driven by a shift towards higher efficiency power plants with more advanced cooling systems (that reduce withdrawals but increase consumption per unit of electricity produced) and by expanding biofuels production. (source: PDF)

So, as we can see, the IEA’s anticipated increase in biofuels production between 2010 and 2035 accounts for a large share of the anticipated increased demand for water used to produce energy.

In the energy-food-water nexus, water is the member of that threesome that is increasingly grabbing the headlines. And, in my opinion, a more accurate description of the problem we face would be the energy-food-water-biofuels nexus.

(IEA’s Twitter Feed)

How much energy does California use to move water?

Today’s post is a follow-up of yesterday’s post about Dr. Chu’s talk, debating whether I misunderstood his statement “that 22% of California’s electricity goes to moving water.” The source is no longer available online, and most likely it is a fraction of that, but the subject is important enough to do some further digging. If any readers here have expertise on this subject, please enlighten us with your knowledge in the comments below.

Though it is raining today in Southern California, we all know about the terrible drought conditions in the state which supplies much of our nation with real food – food that actually shows up on our dinner table every day. We should all be concerned. They produce 99 percent of this nation’s almonds and walnuts, 92 percent of this nation’s strawberries, and 90 percent of this nation’s tomatoes.

The more that California experiences a severe drought, the more temptation there could be to move water around, and that comes at a huge energy cost, which enters a vicious cycle, because it takes a lot of water to produce energy. Likewise, desalination can also be used to produce more of their water, but only by using enormous amounts of energy.

I found a great resource paper from 2004 – the NRDC wrote a publication titled “Energy down the drain – the hidden costs of California’s water supply.”

The following is an excerpt from that paper concerning energy use in moving California’s water around:


Moving large quantities of water over long distances and significant elevations is a highly energy intensive task. For this reason, water systems in the West are particularly energy intensive. According to the Association of California Water Agencies, water agencies account for 7 percent of California’s energy consumption and 5 percent of the summer peak demand.

The State Water Project (SWP) is the largest single user of energy in California. It consumes an average of 5 billion kWh/yr, more than 25 percent of the total electricity consumption for the entire state of New Mexico. The California Energy Commission reports that SWP energy use accounts for 2 to 3 percent of all electricity consumed in California.

The SWP consumes so much energy because of where it sends its water. To convey water to Southern California from the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, the SWP must pump it 2,000 feet over the Tehachapi Mountains, the highest lift of any water system in the world. Pumping one acre-foot of SWP water to the region requires approximately 3,000 kWh. Southern California’s other major source of imported water is also energy intensive: pumping one acre-foot of Colorado River Aqueduct water to Southern California requires about 2,000 kWh.

In fact, according to an estimate from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the amount of electricity used to deliver water to residential customers in Southern California is equal to one-third of the total average household electric use in Southern California.


Note that the California State Water Project supplies water to two-thirds of California’s population. 70% of the water goes to urban users and 30% to agriculture.

Obviously, to answer the question in this post’s title, there is great variance from North to South and from East to West across the large state of California. In this next quote, the NRDC paper discusses the distorted low-cost of irrigation water provided by policy.

“It is difficult to calculate the full value of the subsidies given to users of federally supplied irrigation water. This difficulty helps keep the energy costs of water systems buried. Many California farmers still pay the government $2 to $20 per acre-foot for water, which represents as little as 10 percent of the “full cost” of the water, although some farmers are paying more as contracts are revised (e.g., $35 per acre-foot) For new projects built or proposed by the Bureau of Reclamation, water costs are between $250 and $500 per acre-foot.”

The NRDC then describes how opportunists use this cheaply available water for irrigation in a power arbitrage scheme, by selling hydropower at a substantial profit, and further reducing incentives to conserve the cheap water supplied to irrigators.

These issues become complex and convoluted once policy is taken into account.

As for farms specifically, the NRDC paper sums up water use by farms in California, “Ninety percent of all electricity used on farms is devoted to pumping groundwater for irrigation.”

In the Western arid climates where so many people prefer to live, the goal of developers is to supply water from a more water abundant location even if that means pumping it over a big elevation incline, which tremendously increases the energy required to supply the water. Often, these energy costs are overlooked in project planning phases.

I can give you a perfect example of an insane project such as this here in my arid Western state of Colorado. Without a lot of fanfare, a big water project named the “$1 billion Southern Delivery System” began in 2010 which is to pump water uphill through a 53-mile pipeline from Pueblo to Colorado Springs. Obviously, the rapid population growth of Colorado Springs required desperate measures in attempt “not to constrain” growth, and Colorado Springs had the water rights for the project so couldn’t resist. Though environmental groups signed off, they admitted that the huge energy requirements to pump the water uphill are a “greenhouse issue”. If you read about the project there are huge costs involved -including things that you might not think of- like roads and ranchers left high and dry, yet, many are benefiting economically during the construction phase, and there are those who will benefit from the increased availability of water in the Springs. Is it worth it to “not constrain” population growth? The Southern Delivery System’s website states, “Water is the lifeblood of our economic health, and critical to retaining and attracting jobs and business to our region.” I have to wonder how Springs residents feel about paying more for their water to pave the way for more residents in their city.

So, back to the question raised by yesterday’s post. What percent of energy used by the state of California is used to move water?

I wish I knew.

Blogger Dan Brekke summarizes the 2005 California Energy Commission report, “California’s Water – Energy Relationship” in a pie chart here, which would suggest that the amount of electricity used to move water in California is 4.2 percent of its total electrical use, or 48,000 GWh. This is too low, however, because irrigation is put into a separate category and I’d think it should be included as “moving water”, too. Also, more recent studies and papers since the 2005 California Energy Commission’s paper say that the Commission’s estimates were too low; and, that earlier studies overall have been using assumptions which have been too conservative.

(To view yesterday’s post about Chu’s talk, click here.)


About the photo: The Hayfield Pump Lift – photo and description by Chuck Coker @ FlickCC. The Hayfield Pump Lift is part of the Colorado River Aqueduct. The aqueduct carries water from the Colorado River across the Mojave Desert to Los Angeles, California. It is one of three major aqueduct systems that supply water to Los Angeles. The Colorado River Aqueduct carries water 242 miles from Lake Havasu on the Colorado River to Lake Matthews in western Riverside County. It was built by the Metropolitan Water District Commission. It took eight years to build the aqueduct, from 1934 to 1941. The water is lifted 1,617 feet as it passes through five pump lifts. The aqueduct has 92 miles of tunnels, 63 miles of concrete canals, 55 miles of concrete conduits, and 144 siphons. (That adds up to 210 miles. I don’t know what the other 32 miles is made up of.) The Hayfield Pump Lift lifts the water 440 feet. It can be found on the north side of Interstate 10 between Chiriaco Summit and Desert Center, California.

For another great photo see this.

Water Used to Produce Ethanol in Nebraska

Do you notice any similarities between the two maps below? The top map shows us the corn production regions in Nebraska in 2012 (a drought year), the dark green areas having the highest production.

The red stars represent the ethanol plants in Nebraska.

The second map from year 2005 shows us the regions of Nebraska which irrigate most heavily using groundwater withdrawals. As you can easily see, the regions which irrigate most heavily, are the same as those that were most productive for corn in 2012.

Nebraska ranks as the third highest corn producing state, and it is also the state that is gifted with the most underground Ogallala Aquifer water. Seed corn companies prefer to use Nebraska’s irrigated corn acres for reliability during drought years and ethanol plants also like the reliability of corn production that Nebraska’s irrigated acres can provide. In 2008, 3.6 million acres in Nebraska were irrigated using center-pivots, and that number has surely grown since then.

According to a 2011 article out of Columbia University: “In Ohio, because of sufficient rainfall, only 1% of the corn is irrigated while in Nebraska 72% of the crop is irrigated. It takes 19 gallons of water to produce a bushel of corn in Region 5, 38 gallons in Region 6, and 865 gallons in Region 7. (Region 5 includes Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and Missouri; Region 6 includes Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan; and Region 7 includes North and South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas.) The Baker Institute estimates that producing the corn to meet the ethanol mandate for 2015 will require 2.9 trillion gallons of water.”

Nebraska ranks second of all the states in ethanol production. I was curious to find out what percent of Nebraska’s corn was turned into ethanol. The clearest and most recent numbers that I could find using a non-drought year belong to 2011.

To do the calculation, I used data provided by the National Corn Growers Association:

1,536,000,000 bushels corn was produced in 2011 in Nebraska
2.089 billion gallons of ethanol operating capacity* in 2011 in Nebraska
(if) 1 bushel of corn produces 2.8 gallons ethanol
then the % of corn going to ethanol in the state of Nebraska in 2011
= 49 %

From the University of Nebraska’s website, the issue becomes is it worth it?

Life cycle analysis (LCA) of ethanol production from corn grain has yielded a net energy ratio of 1.2 to 1.45 (Liska et. al. 2009). This represents just a 20 to 45% positive energy balance when producing ethanol from corn. This number has been the criticism of corn ethanol because of the large amount of fossil energy used to produce ethanol.

Yes, I know, the ethanol industry would argue that today’s conversion factor is more efficient, however… irrigated corn requires higher energy inputs even if the price of the water is considered to be free. It is possible that the energy returned on irrigated corn converted to ethanol in Nebraska is negative or about 1:1.

Where is the outrage on that, I ask the Nebraskans who proudly protested the Keystone pipeline to protect the state’s water?

In conclusion, the majority of the corn produced in Nebraska is produced by using irrigation water. And, around half of the corn produced in Nebraska is being converted into ethanol. Given ethanol’s negligible energy return, it looks like a hamster on a wheel that gets nowhere, a frivolous thing to do with this precious fossil water.


*note that this number should be quite accurate because ethanol plants were operating at near 100% capacity in 2011 in Nebraska.

See previous post: Pivots and Loss of Habitat in Flyover-Country

Pivots and Loss of Habitat in Flyover-Country

The middle of this nation is referred to as flyover-country, which is appropriate because much of our population lives on the East or West coast and flies over this area to get to the other side.

The satellite map above is of an area not all that far from where I grew up, in Northeastern Nebraska, an area squarely embedded within this so-called flyover-country. It’s really close to where Alexander Payne’s new movie “Nebraska” was filmed, in the towns of Plainview and Stanton. (I spent many days in Stanton when I was growing up, because my grandmother lived there.) We saw the movie last weekend, by the way, and it is true to Alexander’s style, artistic genius portraying a sorry story about the pitiful human condition made even bleaker with his choice of black and white film. It was winter, of course. Winter scenery can make bleak bleaker, and Alexander uses every bleak tool that he can find for this film.

Payne portrays realism well. He included the center pivot a few times in the film, and he showed non-English speaking Hispanics changing a tire in the local filling station. There were many camera scenes so desolate that they took my breath away. You could see that there was no new investment going on in his chosen communities, outside of roads and cars and pickup trucks, which he portrayed as being of prime importance to the people living there — evident through their conversations. Oh, and lest I forget, he never left out the brain drain, either.

Main Street of Stanton, Nebraska (Wikimedia)

There are many satellite maps of regions in Nebraska which look similar to the one above, but this particular one (up top) is an area north of Highway 275, northeast of the town of Clearwater. This region also made the national news not too long ago because of the huge vintage car auction held in Pierce, Nebraska, which you probably remember.

Don’t you love that town’s name, Clearwater? There aren’t many people that live in Clearwater, or near it for that matter, but the center-pivots are the new life-form, populating the region and enhancing the growth of corn by pumping out the clear water from underground. The town had 419 people in the last census. In the decade between 2000 and 2010, its Hispanic population percentage increased from 0.26 percent to 11.5 percent.

If you’ve never looked at this region using Google satellite maps, I wish you would. Maybe you’ve seen how pivots have taken over as you’ve flown over. It seems like they are almost everywhere that they can be, by now. For those of us who never invested in Valmont, we’ve missed out on a great investment opportunity.

Along with population losses, rural areas such as this one in Nebraska have lost too much wildlife habitat and biodiversity. A couple of barometers for us are the monarch butterfly and the pheasant. According to Harvest Public Media, in Nebraska, wild pheasant concentrations have fallen 86 percent since their peak in the 1960s. As for the monarch, there are no longer milkweeds in the Midwest which are necessary for them to breed on, and so their population is falling dramatically. No longer will first graders in science classes be able to marvel at the story about the massive and mysterious annual monarch migration, like you and I did.

Yesterday, I was reading a twitter feed from the Renewable Fuels Association, because they were testifying to defend ethanol mandates by our government at a hearing discussing the new EPA proposal to cut back the mandate to levels more in line with the blend wall problem. The ethanol-industrial-complex representatives kept saying that the ethanol industry is providing new jobs for rural America.

From what I’m seeing, if anything, the opposite is true, as increased corn production is leading to larger and too-expensive farms making it difficult to begin farming. As farm depopulation continues, the small communities also depopulate and lose their goods and services so that remaining rural residents drive farther for off-farm jobs and groceries.

There is a new USDA report out about ethanol industry job growth. It revealed that the new jobs created, which are negligible in number, are primarily for truck drivers and natural gas pipeline workers (to get the gas piped to the distillation plants and to get the corn hauled to the ethanol plants). Sadly, too, the USDA reports that net job growth in nonmetro areas since 2011 have been near zero, and that between 2010 and 2012, the rural areas have, for the first time ever, experienced a net population loss.

As for the population growth of pivots in the state of Nebraska, the most recent data that I can find out of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, tells us that in 2008, there were 55,000 center pivots in the state, which irrigate about 6.7 million acres, and that center pivot irrigation increased by 5 percent between 2003 and 2008. It would be safe to assume that number went up a lot since 2008, as a result of high corn prices caused by the ethanol mandate. I can tell you that the farm next to my own family farm put one in exactly a year ago in our dryland corn farming county of Nebraska. I guess it was a knee jerk reaction to the drought of 2012, but doing so will punish those of us nearby when we have to dig our own general purpose water wells deeper.

The subject of irrigating corn for use as ethanol is a very interesting one, and important, too, as everyone tends to pretend it’s a rational thing to do in flyover-country.

Watch this space next week for more on this subject.