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Drought forces Midwest firm to ponder drier future

Associated Press Modified: November 15, 2012 at 6:16 pm •  Published: November 15, 2012

In Decatur, ADM is king. The company employs 4,000 people in the town of 76,000. And it's influential far beyond the city's borders. ADM has 265 processing plants in 75 countries, is ranked 28th in this year's Fortune 500 and is legendary for political influence.

Twenty-five years ago, no one at the company was very concerned about water.

But the Midwest drought of 1988 scared ADM into finding ways to reuse it. The result, in part, is a 25-acre pond full of waste water, which will be cleaned by bacteria in frothy, churning brown lagoons that sit nearby. Eventually, the water will be used again, mainly for cooling.

"It sounds real noble to say we want to conserve water," Crookshank said. "In reality it was, 'Don't shut the plant down.'"

Water is now an ongoing concern. When Decatur officials started warning residents this summer that restrictions were coming, they also initiated weekly talks with ADM and another local agribusiness firm, Tate & Lyle, about the receding lake. The discussions, however, had a different tone than orders given to other businesses, such as car washes, to stop using city water.

"The discussions that we've had with ADM and Tate & Lyle involve, what kind of restrictions can they live with?" said Keith Alexander, the city's director of water management. Aside from hospitals and the fire department, the companies are the most critical water users in town, he added.

Other companies started hauling water. Some shut down. None were happy.

Billingsley Service Center & Towing installed a mammoth water tank at its car wash and hauled in $2,000 worth of water a week to stay open, co-owner Jay Billingsley said. But efforts to talk to the city about easing its restrictions were fruitless, he said, even though the car wash consumes a fraction of what the big companies drink.

"I understand (car washes are) not a necessity to live," Billingsley said, "but at the same point, the same time, there are people that depend on this industry."

The city finally eased restrictions on car washes in late October after it rained. By then, officials were uncomfortably close to telling ADM that it, too, would have to cut back — by 15 percent.

Crookshank said the company had figured out ways to avoid curtailing production, so no jobs would be lost. Tate & Lyle also found ways to reduce water use, seeing the drought as an opportunity, spokesman Chris Olsen said.

But the two companies would like the city to expand its water supply, a costly endeavor. Decatur is spending $1.6 million on four temporary wells, and a water consultant who works with a number communities around the country facing similar problems recommends capturing more of the river that feeds the lake, though that could take water from other communities grappling with the drought downstream.

"I hear that all the time," said the consultant, Pamela Kenel. "We need to be designing for a new normal."


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