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October 2008

Release Date: Oct. 2, 2008ASU Logo

NSF Grant to Examine Impact of Ethanol Production on Ogallala

Angelo State University geographer Dr. R. Gary Pumphrey has received a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) grant of $163,670 to study the impact of increased ethanol production on water usage in the Ogallala aquifer and to identify the best strategies to preserve the resource and avoid potential conflicts between users.

The funding is part of a three-year, $747,528 NSF grant jointly awarded to researchers at North Carolina A&T State University, Texas Tech University and ASU for the project titled “Changing Societal Attitudes Towards Water Scarcity: Ethanol Production and Increasing Groundwater Depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer.”

The Ogallala aquifer is a massive water-bearing formation that underlies portions of eight states – Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming and South Dakota – and irrigates the High Plains region that has been called America’s “breadbasket.” Irrigated agriculture uses about 95 percent of the water pumped from the aquifer. The problem is that the water is being withdrawn at a rate faster than natural recharge.

Water from the Ogallala is, in effect, being mined and the increased emphasis on ethanol production has resulted in the planting last year of the nation’s largest crop of corn, the prime source of biofuels, since the 1940s. Corn requires twice the water as most other crops grown over the Ogallala and biorefineries require a comparable amount of water to produce ethanol. Consequently, increased ethanol production has significant implications not only for the region’s agriculture but also for its industries and municipalities.

“These added withdrawals on top of existing groundwater extractions over many years,” said Pumphrey, an assistant professor of geography in ASU’s History Department, “is a direct path to disaster in the very near future.”

The collaborative study will investigate the dynamics of societal responses to the declining water availability from the Ogallala by surveying selected communities in the region and measuring attitudes toward both free market and regulatory approaches to allocating the increasingly scarce resources in the affected areas of the Plains states.

Those findings can then be used to identify the most acceptable approaches to making best use of the water resource and avoiding major conflicts over time.

Katie Plum, coordinator of sponsored projects for Angelo State, said the awarding of the grant speaks highly of the quality of the research project and the importance of its findings.

“NSF grants have become far more competitive in recent years with only 20-30 percent of all applications receiving funding,” Plum said. “Moreover, many researchers have to submit their projects more than once to obtain approval. Receipt of this award on first submission is all the more significant.”