Growing interest in renewable and domestically produced energy motivates the evaluation of woody bioenergy feedstock production. In the southeastern U.S., woody feedstock plantations, primarily of loblolly pine (Pinus taeda), would be intensively managed over short rotations (10-12 years) to achieve high yields. The primary differences in managing woody feedstocks for bioenergy production vs for pulp/sawtimber production include a higher frequency of pesticide and fertilizer applications, whole-tree removal, and greater ground disturbance (i.e., more bare ground during stand establishment and more frequent disturbance). While the effects of pulp/sawtimber production on water quality are well-studied, the effects of growing short-rotation loblolly pine on water quality and the efficacy of current forestry Best Management Practices (BMPs) have not been evaluated for this emerging management system. We used a watershed-scale experiment in a before-after, control-impact design to evaluate the effects of growing loblolly pine for bioenergy on water quality in the Upper Coastal Plain of the southeastern U.S. Intensive management for bioenergy production and implementation of current forestry BMPs occurred on ~50% of two treatment watersheds, with one reference watershed in a minimally managed pine forest. Water quality metrics (nutrient and pesticide concentrations) were measured in stream water, groundwater, and interflow (i.e., shallow subsurface flow) for a two-year pre-treatment period, and for 3.5 years post-treatment. After 3.5 years, there was little change to stream water quality. We observed a few occurrences of saturated overland flow, but sediments and water dissipated within the streamside management zones in over 75% of these instances. Stream nutrient concentrations were low and temporal changes mainly reflected seasonal patterns in nitrogen cycling. Nitrate concentrations increased in groundwater post-treatment to <2 mg N L-1, and these concentrations were below the U.S. drinking water standard (10 mg N L-1). Applied pesticides were almost always below detection in streams and groundwater. Overall, these findings highlight that current forestry BMPs can protect stream water quality from intensive pine management for bioenergy in the first 3.5 years. However, groundwater quality and transit times need to be considered in these low-gradient watersheds of the southeastern U.S. that are likely to become an important location for woody bioenergy feedstock production.
Water consumption and water quality continue to be key factors affecting environmental sustainability in biofuel production. This review covers the findings from biofuel water analyses published over the past 2 years to underscore the progress made, and to highlight advancements in understanding the interactions among increased production and water demand, water resource availability, and potential changes in water quality. We focus on two key areas: water footprint assessment and watershed modeling. Results revealed that miscanthus-, switchgrass-, and forest wood-based biofuels all have promising blue and grey water footprints. Alternative water resources have been explored for algae production, and challenges remain. A most noticeable improvement in the analysis of life-cycle water consumption is the adoption of geospatial analysis and watershed modeling to generate a spatially explicit water footprint at a finer scale (e.g., multi-state region, state, and county scales) to address the impacts of land use change and climate on the water footprint in a landscape with a mixed biofuel feedstock.
Using the Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT) for large-scale watershed modeling could be useful for evaluating the quality of the water in regions that are dominated by nonpoint sources in order to identify potential “hot spots” for which mitigating strategies could be further developed. An analysis of water quality under future scenarios in which changes in land use would be made to accommodate increased biofuel production was developed for the Missouri River Basin (MoRB) based on a SWAT model application. The analysis covered major agricultural crops and biofuel feedstock in the MoRB, including pasture land, hay, corn, soybeans, wheat, and switchgrass. The analysis examined, at multiple temporal and spatial scales, how nitrate, organic nitrogen, and total nitrogen; phosphorus, organic phosphorus, inorganic phosphorus, and total phosphorus; suspended sediments; and water flow (water yield) would respond to the shifts in land use that would occur under proposed future scenarios. The analysis was conducted at three geospatial scales: (1) large tributary basin scale (two: Upper MoRB and Lower MoRB); (2) regional watershed scale (seven: Upper Missouri River, Middle Missouri River, Middle Lower Missouri River, Lower Missouri River, Yellowstone River, Platte River, and Kansas River); and (3) eight-digit hydrologic unit (HUC-8) subbasin scale (307 subbasins). Results showed that subbasin-level variations were substantial. Nitrogen loadings decreased across the entire Upper MoRB, and they increased in several subbasins in the Lower MoRB. Most nitrate reductions occurred in lateral flow. Also at the subbasin level, phosphorus in organic, sediment, and soluble forms was reduced by 35%, 45%, and 65%, respectively. Suspended sediments increased in 68% of the subbasins. The water yield decreased in 62% of the subbasins. In the Kansas River watershed, the water quality improved significantly with regard to every nitrogen and phosphorus compound. The improvement was clearly attributable to the conversion of a large amount of land to switchgrass. The Middle Lower Missouri River and Lower Missouri River were identified as hot regions. Further analysis identified four subbasins (10240002, 10230007, 10290402, and 10300200) as being the most vulnerable in terms of sediment, nitrogen, and phosphorus loadings. Overall, results suggest that increasing the amount of switchgrass acreage in the hot spots should be considered to mitigate the nutrient loads. The study provides an analytical method to support stakeholders in making informed decisions that balance biofuel production and water sustainability.