Skip to main content
ARS Home » Southeast Area » Florence, South Carolina » Coastal Plain Soil, Water and Plant Conservation Research » Research » Publications at this Location » Publication #282304

Title: Biomass feedstock production impact on water resource availability

item Stone, Kenneth - Ken
item Hunt, Patrick
item Cantrell, Keri
item Ro, Kyoung

Submitted to: Book Chapter
Publication Type: Book / Chapter
Publication Acceptance Date: 6/27/2012
Publication Date: 7/1/2013
Citation: Stone, K.C., Hunt, P.G., Cantrell, K.B., Ro, K.S. 2013. Biomass feedstock production impact on water resource availability. In: Singh, B., editor. Biofuel Crop Sustainability. New York: Wiley-Blackwell Publisher. p. 239-260.

Interpretive Summary: High fuel costs have scientists looking for alternatives to fossil fuels. Bioenergy from waste materials and crops is an attractive alternative and has the added benefit of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, which may affect climatic change. However, use of crops to provide significant sustainable bioenergy involves new challenges for agriculture including management of water resources for both fuel and food. We reviewed and assessed potential bioenergy production based on its impact on water resources and the impact of water resources on bioenergy sustainability. Water is already a limited resource that is globally often over allocated. When bioenergy crops are being selected, planners must assess water availability as well as the potential bioenergy crop water use. Additionally, climate and weather will impact water along with the production and sustainability of bioenergy crops. Diversity in bioenergy crops is needed to lessen potential supply disruptions due to crop failures or weather-related events. Corn has been shown to be highly impacted by weather and water. However, improved crops, water management, recycled water, and new technologies for bioenergy conversion offer opportunities for sustainably producing bioenergy crops.

Technical Abstract: Bioenergy from renewable sources are a major area of interest and technology development globally. Bioenergy crop production is highly dependent on water. Bioenergy development will require effective allocation and management of water. The objectives of this investigation were to review the potential impacts bioenergy production will have on water supplies by assessing: 1) Climate and weather impact on water supplies for biomass production; 2) Water use for major bioenergy crop production; and 3) Potential alternatives to improve water supplies for bioenergy. Climate change is impacting water resources throughout the world. In the western US, runoff from snowmelt is occurring earlier, altering the timing of water availability. Weather extremes, both drought and flooding, have occurred more frequently over the last 30 years than the previous 100 years. All of these weather events impact bioenergy crop production. These events may be partially mitigated by alternative water management systems that offer potential for more effective water use and conservation. The current two major bioenergy crops, sugarcane and corn, require 458 and 2036 cubic meters of water per cubic meter of ethanol produced, respectively. The water requirements for corn grain production to meet the updated United States-Department of Energy Billion-Ton Vision may increase 3-fold from 18 to 56 cubic kilometers. However, shifts to alternative bioenergy crops with greater water demand may produce unintended consequences for both water resources and energy feedstocks. Potential alternative management practices to improve water supply management include controlled drainage and new generation livestock waste treatment systems. Controlled drainage can increase water available to plants and simultaneously improve water quality. New livestock waste treatments systems offer the potential to utilize treated wastewater to produce bioenergy crops. New technologies for cellulosic biomass conversion via thermochemical conversion offer the potential for using more diverse feedstocks with dramatically reduced water requirements. Water needs to be incorporated into discussions and decisions related to the implementation and technology for bioenergy. To be sustainable, biomass crop production for bioenergy must conserve and protect natural resources