More ethanol means more corn — and more water pollution

St. Louis Post-Dispatch; 06/10/2007

By Bill Lambrecht

CHARLESTON, Ill. — Kayaking in green algae is not Ron Easter’s idea of the pleasant outing he seeks as he sets out three or four evenings a week to paddle
the Embarras River in the farmlands of eastern Illinois.

But on journeys up the Embarras last summer, algae are what Easter, 52, a high school biology teacher, found himself gliding through.

"You wonder what is washing off those farm fields," he said while pulling his kayak out of the river recently.

What is washing off those fields is nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers applied in ever-increasing amounts to grow more corn to fuel the ethanol boom.

American farmers intend to plant more corn this year than at any time since the food-shortage years of World War II — 90.5 million acres, according to Agriculture Department estimates.

Farmers in Illinois, second only to Iowa in corn production, planned to plant 1.6 million more acres of corn. Their Missouri counterparts intended to plant corn on an additional 700,000 acres.

That’s just this planting season. With the ethanol industry predicting that it will more than double production by 2010 — and with Washington politicians leaping on the biofuels bandwagon — it seems certain than the nation will need more corn in coming years to keep pace.

The robust growth benefits farmers and the Corn Belt economy. It might chip away at energy imports as advertised, even though much of the fertilizer that farmers use is made with imported natural gas. But those successes have one certain cost: more oxygen-stealing chemicals running off farms to choke rivers and lakes with algae.

Like newborn babes, those tiny, willowy corn plants demand plenty of feeding — an average of 156 pounds of nitrogen and 80 pounds of phosphorus per acre on Illinois’ corn crop since 2000, according to government figures. Unlike soybeans, alfalfa and certain other crops, corn requires heavy applications of fertilizer because it is unable to take nitrogen from the atmosphere.

The new corn planted across the country translates to millions of pounds of extra fertilizer, an additional pollution burden that could further harm rivers and lakes already damaged by farm chemicals.

Computer models

A prime example is the Embarras River (pronounced EM-bra), which begins near the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and flows through farmland in eastern Illinois. It’s among dozens of Illinois waterways where crop production has been linked to nutrient pollution, erosion and other problems.

Computer models run for the Post-Dispatch in the University of Illinois’ Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering showed what can happen if farmers plant considerably more corn.

Studies over the past decade determined that when acreage in the Embarras’ watershed is planted half in corn and half in soybeans, the usual crop rotation, about 31 pounds of nitrogen from fertilizer runs off every acre of land in the upper stretches of the river.

What happens if two-thirds of the acreage is planted in corn? Using a computer model called SWAT (Soil and Water Assessment Tool), University of Illinois researchers projected that the nitrogen runoff would increase to more than 40 pounds per acre each year — an increase of more than 29 percent.

J. Wayland Eheart, the University of Illinois civil engineering professor who supervised the modeling, said that more study is needed on increased pollution from ethanol production and ethanol plants’ heavy use of water.

"Not only might the ethanol plants be causing more pollution to be put into water, they might be using up the water that dilutes the pollutants we already have," said Eheart, noting that it takes more than 3 gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of ethanol.

The Post-Dispatch reported this spring that Illinois and Missouri were among several Midwestern states where water use by ethanol plants has become a growing dispute.

‘Green gunk’

The problem often begins with algae blanketing the surface of water. It looks like trouble brewing, and it is. Pollution from fertilizer spoils rivers and lakes for many uses.

In a 2006 Illinois Environmental Protection Agency report identifying water pollution problems around the state, crop production was listed as a potential source at more than 600 stretches of rivers, streams and lakes where excess nitrogen and phosphorus were causing problems, according to an analysis by the Post-Dispatch.

Those waters were classified by the EPA as "impaired," meaning they had lost at least one of their intended uses, such as swimming, fishing or existing as a habitat for aquatic life.

Fertilizer pollution kills aquatic life by suffocation. With oxygen diminished, the aquatic food chain is upset and fish become scarce. Water clouded with sediment and covered with algae no longer is inviting.

"Nobody wants to swim in a lake where there’s green gunk," observed Albert Ettinger, staff attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago.

Then there are the occasions when nitrates — compounds formed when nitrogen and oxygen mix — threaten public water supplies.

Illinois officials are especially concerned about algae in lakes that provide drinking water. Besides harmful nitrate accumulations, algae can clog water intake pipes and filters and even promote dangerous bacteria.

That’s why the federal EPA sets limits on nitrates in public water supplies and warns people that they can cause serious illness and even death.

Nitrates in water are occasionally cited in livestock deaths and were blamed in the late 1990s for sickening people in Monterey County, Calif. Human fatalities are rare, but nitrates in well water were believed to have caused the death of a 2-month-old girl in South Dakota in 1986.

Steve Via — an engineer at the American Water Works Association, which calls itself the world’s biggest organization of water professionals — said communities might be spending more to filter out the nutrient pollution.

"We’re talking about a significant increase in corn production. That’s enough to get everybody’s attention in the Midwest drinking water community," he said.

Not just farms

Missouri produces just one-fourth the amount of corn as Illinois and has experienced far fewer nitrogen pollution problems as a result of crop production.

Missouri’s most serious nutrient problems are due to livestock and wastewater treatment plants, according to the state’s biannual water quality report, released this spring. The report expressed concern about nutrient problems at Lake of the Ozarks, Table Rock Lake and other reservoirs important for recreation.

But the increase in corn planting gives Missouri environmentalists another cause for concern: Some of the new corn acreage had been unplanted, sensitive lands enrolled in the government’s conservation reserve program.

Heavy concentrations of nutrients have become a problem along America’s coast as well as in its heartland. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration asserted recently that nutrient pollution has become a persistent problem in the Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay, Lake Erie, Puget Sound and many important waterways around the country.

NOAA issued warnings six months ago that problems with nitrogen and phosphorous were growing especially fast from the Mid-Atlantic region to Maine, and pointed to development as a main source of the problem. The federal agency predicted a 10 percent to 25 percent increase in nutrient concentrations in coastal areas around the country due as a result of sewage treatment plants, farming and other causes.

In the Chesapeake Bay, where farming and poultry production are blamed for expanses of oxygen-depleted water, federal agencies in May announced a special program and monitoring to curb runoff.

But while federal regulations exist for pollutants from sources like sewage, clean-water laws don’t apply to farm runoff. As a result, government agencies must rely on the environmental stewardship of farmers and incentive programs that encourage farmers to take fragile lands out of production.

weary of criticism

Nitrogen pollution is a touchy issue. For many farmers, springtime planting is like walking into a casino — it’s a gamble, on the weather, future crop prices and global attitudes toward food and energy.

They have lost some bets in recent years as a result of rising fuel prices, European dislike of genetically modified crops and corporate consolidation that has left them feeling squeezed and vulnerable.

Finally, corn growers are enjoying healthy profits thanks to the ethanol boom. So many farmers resent it when the ethanol industry gets criticized, rightly or wrongly, for taxpayer subsidies, higher food prices, and pollution and odor from refineries.

Nutrient pollution, corn growers point out, also results from sewage treatment plants and runoff from golf courses and fertilized lawns. Farmers are growing weary of getting blamed for environmental harm.

"People act like we’re a bunch of greedy destroyers of the land. But we’re environmentalists. Working environmentalists," said Larry Hasheider of Okawville, Ill., interviewed recently while driving his tractor.

Hasheider, 52, and his family farm 1,700 acres along the Kaskaskia River, one of the Illinois watersheds listed for "high priority" problems in the state EPA inventory of troubled waterways.

Hasheider argues that the farmers he knows will be seeking to minimize fertilizer use even as they grow more corn. One reason is purely economic: Because of demand, the cost of his nitrogen fertilizer has soared from $450 a ton last year to $550 this planting season.

On his farm, Hasheider is able to limit his purchases by injecting hog manure into the ground to fertilize corn. Even so, he recognizes that more needs to be done.

"We need to solve this problem, not just criticize everybody," he said.

Like many other farmers, Hasheider is growing more corn — 15 percent more than he planted last year to take advantage of what he regards as "one of the monumental milestones" in the history of farming.

"Right now, ethanol is a race horse galloping so fast, it’s scary," he said.

‘Amazing’ times

In Assumption, Ill., Len Corzine, a fifth generation Illinois farmer and a former president of the National Corn Growers Association, is seizing the day: He planted corn on 90 percent of the more than 2,000 acres he farms. Five years ago, he was splitting his plantings equally between corn and soybeans.

Corzine, 57, described what the recent high prices mean for farmers. At 200 bushels per acre for 1,000 acres, an increase of $1 per bushel means an additional $200,000 in receipts.

"It’s pretty amazing," he said. "You can do more things with your family. You can give more at church."

Waters from Corzine’s land flow north, ultimately to the Sangamon River, another Illinois waterway with problems from farm chemicals.

In its report last year of troubled waters in Illinois, the state EPA said that aquatic life had been damaged in several stretches of the river and noted that it was plagued by nitrogen, phosphorus and oxygen problems.

Like many modern farmers, Corzine deploys satellite tracking for soil testing to prevent over-fertilizing with phosphorus. He’s meticulous about it, displaying records that date back several years. But he suggests that there is room for improvement

"If I’m going to do some more of these things, you need to help me out a little bit," he said, referring to the need for more robust government programs paying farmers for buffer strips and other efforts to stop runoff.

push to conserve

As watershed coordinator for the Embarras River Management Association, Greg Sherwood has worked to persuade farmers to be more conservation-minded. His work won him one of 24 Environmental Hero Awards presented in Illinois last year by Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn.

Sherwood also has a substantial investment in one of Illinois’ new ethanol plants, which he views as economic salvation to decaying towns in southeastern Illinois. He, too, is taking advantage of high corn prices, planting corn on two-thirds of the 600 acres he farms in Crawford County rather than the usual half.

On a tour of his farm, Sherwood showed some of the vegetation he has planted alongside cornfields — called buffer strips — that act as filters reducing runoff. Persuading other farmers to do likewise isn’t always easy, he says.

"You meet people with a certain mindset, and you just can’t get through to some of them," he said of his discussions with other farmers.

"You tell them that they can still make a living with an environmentally sensitive way of doing business. But they’d rather have those extra six rows of corn than plant filter strips to keep in sediments and nutrients. Some farmers will listen and some won’t. I guess that’s just the nature of the beast."

Grant Slater of the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau contributed to this report