Op-Ed: Vilsack needs to confront ethanol’s role in water quality

Source: By LARRY MCKINLEY, Des Moines Register • Posted: Wednesday, August 24, 2016

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was right to stress the urgency of addressing water-quality issues in Iowa when visiting his home state last week, but he left out one of the significant contributing causes of the problem — a mandate to grow corn for fuel that has encouraged farmers to plant more and more corn on poor quality lands that require more fertilizers to be productive. The nitrogen-rich farmland runoff from those fields continues to pollute state waterways and causes trouble downstream in the Gulf of Mexico, which is now home to an annual nitrogen-fed algal bloom — an area of depleted oxygen often referred to as the “dead zone” — now expected to grow to the size of Connecticut.

I may have the most unique perspective on this concerning issue. Mine is a farming family, having farmed cotton continuously on the same land since 1895. I am still in that business. We also have oil on our land and receive a small royalty check monthly on the 0.06 percent of those mineral rights we own. I have spent my entire professional career of 40-plus years working to assure a healthy and productive Gulf of Mexico. I can appreciate the complexity of this perplexing issue from just about every side but the ethanol side.

As Vilsack knows, corn is a fertilizer-intensive crop, and as more nitrogen fertilizer is used, contamination of waterways from farm runoff is an ongoing issue. Nitrates in water contribute to hypoxic dead zones, in which oxygen is suppressed and marine life cannot be sustained. Among humans, consuming water overrun with nitrates can suppress oxygen in the blood and contribute to numerous health issues. Filtering out nitrates is expensive, as Des Moines taxpayers well know.

Iowa tops the nation in corn production; the state is also the top ethanol producer in the U.S. — a corn-fed industry supported by federal incentives and ethanol fuel-blending mandates. I know farmers in Iowa are no different than my cotton-growing family, except they work with some of the best soil I have ever seen. They do not want to waste fertilizer; it is literally money down the drain. I am convinced that all parties genuinely want to solve this problem. I have watched organizations like the Hypoxia Taskforce, which gathers many — if not all — of the stakeholders around this issue, and is working diligently to address this problem. I think their efforts are more promising than any other in addressing an issue of this daunting a geographic scale.

The ethanol subsidy is making their task difficult — to perhaps impossible. How can the federal government subsidize the devastation of America’s Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, through ethanol subsidies on one hand and on the other direct the expenditure of $16 billion to restore it? This is literally one hand not knowing what the other is doing.

Iowa is not alone in its water-quality challenge. As corn production has increased around the country, the concentration of nitrates in the Mississippi River — a river whose tributaries are fed by water runoff from many top corn-producing states in the heartland of the U.S. — remains at troubling levels.

In evaluating solutions to water-quality challenges nationwide, officials must first acknowledge the main drivers of these problems, including incentivized corn production through federal ethanol mandates.

LARRY MCKINNEY is executive director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. McKinney’s work addresses challenging environmental issues including endangered species conservation, water resource development and habitat loss impacting the Gulf of Mexico. Contact: larry.mckinney@tamucc.edu