Corn prices, though down a bit in 2013, have been at near-record levels for several years, in part due to the federal ethanol program. One widely cited research paper from economists at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, Davis reckoned that 34 percent of the increase in corn prices between 2006 and 2012 was due to the federal government’s 2007 subsidy program to produce billions of gallons of ethanol for use as fuel.
The federal ethanol program, and demand for animal feed in general, is pushing Great Plains water use higher. Corn is one of the thirstier crops sown on the plains. It needs a full drink at specific periods in the growing cycle. It is an all-or-nothing crop, and most farmers are giving it all the water it needs.
“The highest corn yields in the U.S. are in Dallam County, Texas,” said Bob Stewart, a professor of agricultural sciences at West Texas A&M University and director of the Dryland Agriculture Institute, referring to the county in the northwest corner of the Panhandle. “Why? Because we use a heck of a lot of water. Are we going to deplete the aquifer doing it? Yes, we are. Why? It’s economical.”