Corn For Fuel In Mississippi: Bad Idea?

Maybe growing corn for biofuels in the Mississippi Delta wasn’t such a good idea. That seems to be the takeaway from a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) report that says converting cotton fields to corn is draining the region’s aquifer and boosting the amount of oxygen-gobbling nitrogen in a river that eventually feeds into the Gulf of Mexico.

The USGS says under the U.S. Department of Energy Biomass Program’s Biofuels Initiative, implemented in 2006, there was a 47 percent decrease in the cotton acreage and a 288 percent increase in corn acreage in the area in northwestern Mississippi from 2006 to 2007.

Mississippi River Valley, corn for biofuels

image via U.S. Geological Survey

The problem is growing corn requires 80 percent more water than growing cotton, and that additional water is being drawn from the Mississippi River Valley alluvial aquifer faster than Nature can replenish it with rain. To make matters worse, corn crops don’t just have a hefty appetite for water — they also need more nitrogen fertilizer than cotton.

“We are seeing a loss of habitat complexity, and lowered water levels have decreased baseflow to streams,” Jeannie Barlow, a USGS Hydrologist and co-author of the study, says in a press release. “Some streams have remained dry for months in the summer and fall during periods of low rainfall.”

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Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.