U.S. Biofuel Policies and Domestic Shifts in Agricultural Land Use and Water Balances

Thursday, 18 December 2014: 8:15 AM
Jacob Teter, Sonia Yeh and Gouri Shankar Mishra, University of California Davis, Davis, CA, United States
Policies promoting domestic biofuels production could lead to significant changes in cropping patterns. Types of direct and indirect land use change include: switching among crops (displacement), expanding cropped area (extensification), and altering water/soil management practices (e.g. irrigation, tillage) (intensification). Most studies of biofuels water use impacts calculate the water intensity of biofuels in liters of irrigated/total evapotranspired water per unit energy of biofuels. But estimates based on this approach are sensitive to assumptions (e.g. co-product allocation, system boundaries), and do not convey policy-relevant information, as highlighted by the issue of land use change. We address these shortcomings by adopting a scenario-based approach that combines economic modeling with crop-water modeling of major crops and biofuel feedstocks. This allows us to holistically compare differences in water balances across policy scenarios in an integrated economic/agricultural system. We compare high spatial resolution water balance estimates under three hypothetical policy scenarios: 1) a counterfactual no-policy scenario, 2) modified Renewable Fuels Standard mandates (M-RFS2), & 3) a national Low Carbon Fuel Standard plus a modified RFS2 scenario (LCFS+RFS2). Differences between scenarios in crop water balances (i.e. transpiration, evaporation, runoff, groundwater infiltration, & irrigation) are regional and are a function of changes in land use patterns (i.e. displacement, intensification, & extensification), plus variation in crop water-use characteristics. Cropped land area increases 6.2% and 1.6% under M-RFS2 and LCFS+RFS2 scenarios, respectively, by 2030. Both policy scenarios lead to reductions in net irrigation volumes nationally compared to the no-policy scenario, though more irrigation occurs in regions of the Midwest and West. The LCFS+RFS2 reduces net irrigation water use by 3.5 times more than M-RFS2. However, both policies drive extensification and hence greater net transpiration (i.e. economically useful water consumption), at the expense of groundwater infiltration, which recharges surface & groundwater stocks. Our study illustrates potential tradeoffs in water resource availability that might result from domestic policies promoting bioenergy.