Water shortages leading right back to corn and ethanol

posted at 11:31 am on June 28, 2014 by Jazz Shaw

The central plains have seen some relief this spring with bands of heavy rains moving through, but the 2014 season has been the exception rather than the norm. The 2012 – 2013 drought season saw more and more people having trouble accessing potable ground water, or even sufficient moisture for agriculture. It’s long been known that this problem is exacerbated by expanding corn production, driven by a need to feed the government mandated ethanol market. But a recent study from an unusual source sheds some new light on this situation.

The source for this study actually is the interesting part, as it comes from Ceres, a group self-described as “a non-profit organization advocating for sustainability leadership.” Among their key issues, they list climate change and the need to move away from fossil based fuels. In other words, this isn’t exactly a right wing think tank. But now they’ve released a lengthy study on the subject of aggressive corn production to meet ethanol demands and the effect it is having on water supplies.

Recent extreme weather events such as the devastating Midwest drought of 2012 helped drive record corn prices ($8/bushel). This provided a taste of what is predicted to become the new normal in many parts of the Corn Belt thanks to climate change—a point powerfully reinforced by the latest National Climate Assessment.

Growing irrigation demand for corn production, alongside unchecked withdrawals of groundwater from stressed water sources—in particular, the High Plains aquifer that spans eight Great Plains states and California’s overextended Central Valley aquifer—create additional risks for the $65 billion a year corn industry, which has nearly doubled in size over the past two decades.

It’s a lengthy study which you can download at the link, but the many findings – when combined with what we know of the industry -lead to some interesting facts such as these:

The ethanol industry, which uses 35 percent of all U.S. corn, adds further stress to regions experiencing declining water tables.

- 36 ethanol refineries are located in and source corn irrigated with water from the High Plains aquifer.
- Of these, 12 ethanol refineries above the High Plains aquifer are sourcing corn in areas experiencing cumulative declines in groundwater levels.
- Six of these refineries are in regions of extreme water-level decline (between 50-150 feet).

And yet, when you speak with most any of the army of so called green activists, they will assure you that no price is too high if it replaces dirty, nasty old gasoline with the “Earth friendly” choice of ethanol. This willingness to accept the premise at all costs leads to support for government mandates, such as the odious Renewable Fuel Standard, currently crippling the market and, as it turns out, the environment as well.

Please do check out the Ceres infographic titled, “The Cost of Corn.” And yet supposedly green minded environmental activists will ignore the science, even when it comes from their own side, to push this agenda. They hypocrisy is enough to give one pause.


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Full speed ahead.

wheelgun on June 28, 2014 at 11:37 AM

Here in Texas, we have people in the western part of the state growing corn for ethanol. Texas already has water issues and these folks are not helping.

Grammar Nazi on June 28, 2014 at 11:38 AM

Repeal the RFS, and the Ethanol subsidy, and this problem will self-correct.

Another Drew on June 28, 2014 at 11:44 AM

After having declared carbon, the basis of all life on Earth as a pollutant, and WARMTH (also vital for ample biodiversity) as the biggest WMD, the greens will soon label water as a dangerous chemical (look at how many deaths it causes!), and work tirelessly to sequester it in corn and hemp plants.

Dolce Far Niente on June 28, 2014 at 11:47 AM

Oh, and BRAWNDO… its what plants crave.

Dolce Far Niente on June 28, 2014 at 11:49 AM

I’m curious. Could any self identified leftists (or progressive-Marxists) justify this for us? Leftists are Malthusians, yet leftists support policies that starve people so we can put food in our gas tanks. So how about it? How do you jibe it? And I promise no cut and paste of failures to support your own nonsense for over 10 months if any leftists honestly respond to this.

NotCoach on June 28, 2014 at 11:49 AM

It will take people dying of thirst to get DC to move and even then environuts will fight it tooth and nail.

formwiz on June 28, 2014 at 11:49 AM

Dolce Far Niente on June 28, 2014 at 11:47 AM

Ban Dihydrogen Monoxide!

RoadRunner on June 28, 2014 at 11:50 AM

Sure…but you guys defend the corn-based HFCS American diet as the “free market.”

vlad martel on June 28, 2014 at 11:52 AM

Sure…but you guys defend the corn-based HFCS American diet as the “free market.”

vlad martel on June 28, 2014 at 11:52 AM

Squirrel!

Now back to the topic at hand. Don’t you think it’s time to kill the ethanol mandates in light of the damage it does to people?

NotCoach on June 28, 2014 at 11:54 AM

Ethanol is a dumb, market distorting program (cellulosic ethanol on the other hand is a pretty promising technology that’s not quite there yet).

In any case, I’m hoping this piece isn’t calling for the destruction of irrigation-dependent farmers’ livelihood? (My family has been farming corn/soybeans in south central Nebraska long before ethanol was a thing, but yes, irrigation is kind of a must in that area).

LukeinNE on June 28, 2014 at 12:00 PM

Now back to the topic at hand. Don’t you think it’s time to kill the ethanol mandates in light of the damage it does to people?

NotCoach on June 28, 2014 at 11:54 AM

I said “sure,” squirrely!

Just noting the usual “free market” hypocrisy.

I would very much prefer corn removed from our gasoline.

vlad martel on June 28, 2014 at 12:00 PM

Death Plants

faraway on June 28, 2014 at 12:05 PM

I said “sure,” squirrely!

vlad martel on June 28, 2014 at 12:00 PM

Good. It’s good to see that a little common sense can even sink into the density of a leftist once in awhile.

NotCoach on June 28, 2014 at 12:06 PM

LukeinNE on June 28, 2014 at 12:00 PM

I don’t think that’s the point. The point is that the ethanol mandates are so distorting the markets that everyone wants to grow nothing but corn, and that is stressing our systems.

NotCoach on June 28, 2014 at 12:07 PM

when you speak with most any of the army of so called green activists, they will assure you that no price is too high

…let them die of thirst!

JugEarsButtHurt on June 28, 2014 at 12:11 PM

The irony of it all is that the corn belt states are all Republican.

Ruckus_Tom on June 28, 2014 at 12:19 PM

I don’t see this as a left/right issue. Lots of conservatives (myself included) are opposed to the current industrial agricultural model, which forces ruminants to eat corn in feedlots, making their meat unhealthy, generating tons of pollutants that used to be used as fertilizer, and consigning farmers in the Midwest to growing corn, soybeans and little else using methods that deplete both topsoil and water reserves. We didn’t get here through anything resembling market forces, but rather by the same kind of heavy-handed government regulated crony capitalism that brought us the RFS. Those on the left who are aware of the above recognize that any benefit that might derive from ethanol is cancelled out many times over by the damage done by modern ag methods.

tomwinfl on June 28, 2014 at 12:28 PM

I said “sure,” squirrely!

Just noting the usual “free market” hypocrisy.

I would very much prefer corn removed from our gasoline.

vlad martel on June 28, 2014 at 12:00 PM

Wait… I presume you can understand that the ethanol mandates are the POLAR OPPOSITE of a free market force?

So where is the “free market” hypocrisy?

Pointing out that the government mandated RFS, an alleged move to “green” energy is creating significant water supply problems (as well as failing miserably at being any kind of sustainable energy source; hypocrisy by definition) has nothing to do with and is hardly at odds with supporting a (non-existent) free market in grain agriculture.

But, I suppose… any mindless drivel in order to score an own goal is good for a progressive.

Dolce Far Niente on June 28, 2014 at 12:33 PM

The irony of it all is that the corn belt states are all Republican.

Ruckus_Tom on June 28, 2014 at 12:19 PM

Yes, Illinois is a HUGE Red state.

And Iowa… voted for the Dem presidential candidate 5 out of the last 6 elections, but hey- Republikkan!

And Wisconsin- another bunch of votes-Obama rightwingerz.

You sure do understand the Midwest, Tom.
/

Dolce Far Niente on June 28, 2014 at 12:38 PM

How much energy is consumed replacing devices destroyed by ethanol? Such as lawn mowers or boat engines? How much energy is consumed replacing appliances that meet the green standards? The latter is usually achieved by a reduction in engine size, thus promoting deterioration. For example a washing machine or refrigerator that formerly had a 20 year life expectancy now has a 5 year. This policy is a cycle of defeat.

pat on June 28, 2014 at 12:49 PM

Repeal the RFS, and the Ethanol subsidy, and this problem will self-correct.

Another Drew on June 28, 2014 at 11:44 AM

Ahhh!!!! How dare you use the R-word in my presence!!

/your congresscritter

Grammar Nazi on June 28, 2014 at 12:52 PM

In any case, I’m hoping this piece isn’t calling for the destruction of irrigation-dependent farmers’ livelihood? (My family has been farming corn/soybeans in south central Nebraska long before ethanol was a thing, but yes, irrigation is kind of a must in that area).

LukeinNE on June 28, 2014 at 12:00 PM

Then do yourself a favor and don’t drive through central Calif. All to save a bait fish of course. Or the Northwest to save the Spotted Owl. Which also live in new growth trees of course. If you have Sage Hen within twenty miles your goose is cooked.

CW20 on June 28, 2014 at 12:56 PM

Not to mention that each of those batches of ethanol begins with at least 400,000 gallons of water to make the “beer” that is distilled.

Kermit on June 28, 2014 at 1:13 PM

End ethanol subsidies and mandates now. Problem solved.

Whitey Ford on June 28, 2014 at 1:27 PM

These same enviro-radicals remain silent on amnesty and the Senate immigration bill that would massively increase our population resulting in huge increases in demand for natural resources including WATER. More people, from an environmental perspective, is bad yet they are utterly silent.

Charlemagne on June 28, 2014 at 1:28 PM

It’s not hypocrisy on the “environmentalists’” parts.

Well, maybe it looks that way to anyone stupid enough to believe any of their high-minded public statements.

It’s not about the environment at all and never has been. That’s just a convenient excuse which draws in the gullible, well-meaning donors.

It’s all about economic control. Who shall wield the power is he who defines the terms.

The environment, the economy, and society at large would be better off if we banned ethanol from automotive fuels tomorrow and cut all subsidies for it.

Adjoran on June 28, 2014 at 1:32 PM

How much energy is consumed replacing devices destroyed by ethanol? Such as lawn mowers or boat engines? How much energy is consumed replacing appliances that meet the green standards? The latter is usually achieved by a reduction in engine size, thus promoting deterioration. For example a washing machine or refrigerator that formerly had a 20 year life expectancy now has a 5 year. This policy is a cycle of defeat.

pat on June 28, 2014 at 12:49 PM

So it’s almost like ‘Cash for Clunkers’? That’s a double-win!

slickwillie2001 on June 28, 2014 at 1:38 PM

The left’s been conflicted about this for a while. The domestic left likes ethanol because they like anything that is an alternative to oil; but overseas the left has been railing for some time now against the U.S. using food crops for biofuels (though obviously the reasons people like Castro or Chavez came out against it a decade ago are different from being ticked off by farm subsidies or aquifer depletion in the Plains states.

jon1979 on June 28, 2014 at 1:43 PM

Somewhere on the Tex/Mex border, a hungry immigrant is saying, wtf. These agw greenies are taking food out of the mouths of hungry immigrants so that if a few starve we can still save the planet. Sacrifices must be made.

Kissmygrits on June 28, 2014 at 2:03 PM

Sure…but you guys defend the corn-based HFCS American diet as the “free market.”

vlad martel on June 28, 2014 at 11:52 AM

yeah we all support the feds mandating something be used and we call that free market.
dumbass.

dmacleo on June 28, 2014 at 2:03 PM

There is also the fact that every gallon of ethanol uses two gallons of oil to make and IIRC five gallons of water. Also we are using food for energy!!

The left is truly anti-science. Guided only by faith and stupidity with no regards for the results of their foolish policies.

jukin3 on June 28, 2014 at 2:09 PM

Repeal the RFS, and the Ethanol subsidy, and this problem will self-correct.

Another Drew on June 28, 2014 at 11:44 AM

Hardly. That isn’t how the system works. It always is a form of “follow the money”.

Because regulations, taxes and overhead, finding investments with respectable returns is difficult. Many high income people have sunk money into agriculture. Dittos for pension funds. These same people lobby for RFS so that their investment makes returns and makes them consistently. The only way to do that is to rent-seek and have the government use its police powers to guarantee their investment.

If they get rid of RFS it is only because they found a more lucrative way to plunder the public.

Reuben Hick on June 28, 2014 at 2:12 PM

I’m curious. Could any self identified leftists (or progressive-Marxists) justify this for us? Leftists are Malthusians, yet leftists support policies that starve people so we can put food in our gas tanks. So how about it? How do you jibe it? And I promise no cut and paste of failures to support your own nonsense for over 10 months if any leftists honestly respond to this.

NotCoach on June 28, 2014 at 11:49 AM

There is no justification in real-world terms. Except their desire to reduce the human population to the theoretical “carrying capacity” of the planet in a pre-Bronze age, agrarian socialist, feudalist, subsistence-farming society, which they calculate at about 50 million humans, total. I.e, four slaves for every one of the “enlightened” rulers like themselves.

Somewhere on the Tex/Mex border, a hungry immigrant is saying, wtf. These agw greenies are taking food out of the mouths of hungry immigrants so that if a few starve we can still save the planet. Sacrifices must be made.

Kissmygrits on June 28, 2014 at 2:03 PM

Actually, they’re counting on most starving, as it’s the cheapest and most “energy-efficient” way to simultaneously destroy civilization and get rid of the 99.5% of humanity they regard as “superfluous”.

Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six describes the environmentalists’ wet-dream in detail.

clear ether

eon

eon on June 28, 2014 at 2:18 PM

It’s not hypocrisy on the “environmentalists’” parts.

Let me attempt to take an over-simplified model that you present and make it just simplified.

There is a continuum of “environmentalists” without real clear delineations. We have the Al Gore types at the top who use “environmentalism” as the vehicle to plunder the public of billions of dollars. They are in it for the money, pure and simple.

A parallel level is the control freaks who want to control people on everything for any reason. Environmentalism is just one of those tools to accomplish the goal of controlling others.

Then down a level are the “true believers”. These are the schmucks who cut the checks so that the top level keep their class ‘A’ office space, their luxury junkets, and the considerable compensation packages. This is the target audience for all of their outreach programs and chicken little emails. Keep them scared so they keep cutting checks.

Down from that level are the morons who are too stupid to know better, too poor to contribute (and attend the occasional gala) so they line up and protest and are the street level agitators. They are the ones who sit in trees, chain themselves to gates and make life hell for others on the college campus. They are the jack boots in this operation.

Below that level are the 30% who are ‘r’ Strategists (sheeple) who are easily manipulated by social pressure and the flimsiest of excuses. Who don’t want to be out-grouped so they will parrot whatever the thought-leader tells them; the more aggressive will attempt to out-group those who don’t perfectly tow the ideological line.

The environment, the economy, and society at large would be better off if we banned ethanol from automotive fuels tomorrow and cut all subsidies for it.

Adjoran on June 28, 2014 at 1:32 PM

This all may be true, but you are applying a template of wealth growth, preservation and pragmatism. Our government never has been about human flourishing, it has always been about spoils, rent-seeking and a venue for thugs and sadists to torture populations.

Reuben Hick on June 28, 2014 at 2:27 PM

These are the guys who love cooked eagle, so their argument holds no water for me. Whether that corn was to be used for ethanol or for feedstock and human consumption, it would have been grown and sold.

Hence, the argument that ethanol (which is a secondary product of corn) has a negative effect on drought stressed water tables is specious — whereas an argument that agricultural production of corn would be closer to the mark.

These guys rank ethanol right up there with fossil fuels, and want to tar both with the same brush. They are also in the same rank and file that think we humans ought to limit our populations, and that abortion is a fine way to do so.

unclesmrgol on June 28, 2014 at 2:28 PM

There is no justification in real-world terms. Except their desire to reduce the human population to the theoretical “carrying capacity” of the planet in a pre-Bronze age, agrarian socialist, feudalist, subsistence-farming society, which they calculate at about 50 million humans, total. I.e, four slaves for every one of the “enlightened” rulers like themselves.

eon on June 28, 2014 at 2:18 PM

I think that sentiment is stronger in some than in others. Those who actually strive to create this scenario consider Plato’s The Republic a stroke mag as they see themselves undeniably in the role of a philosopher king.

This may explain why in totalitarian regimes, the first to go are the “intellectuals”, because, if our current education system is any indication, the PhDs in academia and in NGOs see themselves in the flowing robes leading Kallipolis. Its the short-tempered narcissists with the backing of the military who usually wipes out the competition.

So when the genocide begins, while the r-Strategists starve and the K-strategists sojourn in their well-stocked bunkers until the worst of the shooting ends, those who felt entitled to the throne will be exterminated by the more ruthless.

Reuben Hick on June 28, 2014 at 2:37 PM

Sure…but you guys defend the corn-based HFCS American diet as the “free market.”

vlad martel on June 28, 2014 at 11:52 AM

I’m at a loss here. Fructose is a sugar which is immediately usable by the human body, as is glucose, which is present in HFCS in amounts nearly equal to the fructose which gives HFCS its name. Sucrose (table sugar) needs to be broken by an enzyme in our stomachs into a molecule of glucose plus a molecule of fructose before it is usable. Hence, HFCS and sucrose deliver identical usable molecules to our body for energy use, with the difference being that stomach sucrase is not needed to reduce the sugars in HFCS for our use; they are already reduced.

It takes less HFCS to sweeten a particular product than sucrose because the extra fructose in HFCS is sweeter than sucrose to our pallets (sucrose is 50/50 fructose/glucose, while HFCS is 55/45 fructose/glucose).

Now, whether that 5% decrease in glucose in HFCS vice sucrose is a diabetes trigger is certainly debatable (glucose is the molecule which triggers insulin production — fructose doesn’t). I’d say that excessive consumption of sugars from any source (including sucrose) will increase incidence of diabetes, and we Americans have come to love our sugar, just as we love our salt.

unclesmrgol on June 28, 2014 at 2:54 PM

They hypocrisy is enough to give one pause.

‘They hypocrisy’ was Obama’s entire campaign platform.

HopeHeFails on June 28, 2014 at 3:03 PM

There’s more to this than ethanol; corn* has been additionally subsidized for decades by penalties on imported sugar and now imported ethanol made from cane as well. All these policies keep our farmers subsidized and poor Central and South American farmers poor and hungry.

*and beets.

slickwillie2001 on June 28, 2014 at 3:16 PM

All water belongs to the Federal Government. If you want water, you need to be well connected to the political party that controls the Federal Government.

The government will tell you when you can have water, and how much. It will tell you what you can do with the water it gives you. Of course you will be expected to pay your fair share of the cost of campaigning for government office if you expect to get any water.

If you want to survive, your, or your friends have to get elected, and you need to make friends with those who are elected.

Joseph OHenry on June 28, 2014 at 5:08 PM

Whether that corn was to be used for ethanol or for feedstock and human consumption, it would have been grown and sold.

Hence, the argument that ethanol (which is a secondary product of corn) has a negative effect on drought stressed water tables is specious —

Actually, ethanol mandates have kept the floor price of corn so high that quite a bit of marginal land ( a lot of which had been in conservation reserve- there’s a profitable scam for farmers!)has been brought into production in order to cash in on the prices, as well as diminishing the traditional use of soybeans in rotation with the corn crop, requiring more fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide use on this over-cropped corn ground.

If corn prices retreated to a pre-mandate level, other crops would profitably compete for planted acreage.

In other words: no mandates > lower corn prices > less corn planted.

Dolce Far Niente on June 28, 2014 at 5:19 PM

Part of this is driven by banks and insurance companies. You have to get spring loans for seed and fertilizer. In order to get those loans, you need crop insurance. Insurers are now requiring more irrigation than they used to. They are now requiring irrigation in areas where when I was a kid, nobody irrigated.

crosspatch on June 28, 2014 at 5:39 PM

Dolce Far Niente on June 28, 2014 at 12:38 PM

Ha. Well, take comfort that Republicans didn’t stop the president back in ’07 from signing ethanol mandates into law.

We’ll I’ll be. Jorge Bush, a Republican, was president back in 07, wasn’t he?

Ruckus_Tom on June 28, 2014 at 6:49 PM

bastards

ultracon on June 28, 2014 at 9:09 PM

I agree that land which used to lie fallow is now being used to grow corn. So what is the point here?

gasmeterguy on June 29, 2014 at 10:19 AM

Green energy is just another scam to funnel taxpayer money to the very rich.

Traditionally Republicans have been guilty of sending out the farm subsidy pork, but lately it has been Obama and his Democrat allies, and not sending the money to farmers, but to big agribusiness and related mega-corporations.

I don’t have anything against big business in general, but I hate it when cronyism is the order of the day to ensure profits to a select few, by elected officials squandering the wealth of the nation and continually betraying the trust of the people.

s1im on June 29, 2014 at 8:46 PM

…supposedly green minded environmental activists will ignore the science, even when it comes from their own side, to push this agenda. They hypocrisy is enough to give one pause.

There is no science showing “climate change” is responsible for the drought. The fact that the the western half of the US ha droughts is a matter of history – read about the dust bowl back in the 1930′s. The climate hasn’t changed – it’s cyclical, we just installed irrigation, and good management of water resources would help alleviate some of the droughts consequences.

Expecting the government to manage anything responsibly is stupid at best and most likely just insane. The government has a long history of proof it can’t manage anything properly: land, forests, fishing stocks, etc. If you want something totally FUBAR, let the government manage it.

earlgrey on June 30, 2014 at 10:13 AM

Sure…but you guys defend the corn-based HFCS American diet as the “free market.”

vlad martel on June 28, 2014 at 11:52 AM

Well, yes… “free market” means that it is free of government interference, such as regulations and subsidies… which are the only things supporting ethanol.

dominigan on June 30, 2014 at 11:02 AM

tomwinfl on June 28, 2014 at 12:28 PM

You really don’t know much about agriculture.

1) Cattle eating corn in feedlots doesn’t make unhealthy meat. It makes fattier meat, and fat adds flavor to meat for cooking, making it more desirable to eat.

2) Cattle don’t eat corn year round… it’s too expensive and produces meat with too much fat, making it undesirable. Feedlots are for fattening up (finishing) cattle, usually over a period of only a few weeks, before sending them to slaughter. Most cattle are grass fed, hay fed (dried grass/alfalfa), or silage fed (using corn husks and leftovers after harvesting). They may have a light grain diet, but not like what they get when finishing.

3) Not sure what you mean by “pollutants”. All animals generate waste and gas during digestion. It’s how digestion works… basic biology.

4) Farmers understand a little bit about soil and nutrients (sarcasm), they’ve only known about how crops deplete or replenish soils since the Middle Ages. They perform this little thing called crop rotation in which different crops are rotated each year to replenish the soil. Ethanol production throws that all out of whack because it emphasizes corn production above others (soy beans, wheat, hay) which leads to depleted soil. Corn can especially deplete soil nutrients AND WATER if over-planted.

5) Market forces normally cause farmers to rotate crops to replenish soil nutrients to get the highest crop yield each year. Ethanol imbalances those by emphasizing one crop over another. Contrary to your “understanding”, farmers track yield per acre every year. My grandpa could tell you yield/crop/year on every field going back 20 years.

6) Crony agri-business is almost exclusively a Leftist invention using government regulations and unbalancing subsidies to favor certain crops over others instead of allowing the market to reach equilibrium on its own. It is ALWAYS a Leftist feature to enact regulations and subsidies because of what THEY think is best instead of allowing the market to determine it… BECAUSE THEY ALWAYS THINK THEY KNOW BETTER THAN ANYONE ELSE WHAT IS BEST FOR THEM!

7) The Left is completely IGNORANT of farming practices and loves to spout nonsense (as referenced in your post)… which is why the vast majority of farmers are CONSERVATIVES. And this makes sense as they are CONSERVING the land and using it to its best ability… something the Left knows NOTHING about!

dominigan on June 30, 2014 at 11:20 AM

Sure…but you guys defend the corn-based HFCS American diet as the “free market.”

vlad martel on June 28, 2014 at 11:52 AM

Well, yes… “free market” means that it is free of government interference, such as regulations and subsidies… which are the only things supporting ethanol.

dominigan on June 30, 2014 at 11:02 AM

There are reams of regulations and subsidies that have pushed industrial ag to produce corn, instead of other crops. Not just subsidies, but regs on fertilizers, available seed stocks, fungicides and insecticides, limits on other crops. Some of these restrictions probably make sense, but the net impact of the morass of goobermint regulation and bureaucracy is to push corn so hard and empower industrial ag so much that “the market” becomes a fiction and one with some nasty unintended consequences in terms of long-term land/water management and public health. Solutions? With industrial ag so powerful and plugged in to goobermint? Given current goobermint/bureaucracy? Think I’ll get a truck garden and chicken coop going in my backyard. I needed to diet anyway.

Ay Uaxe on June 30, 2014 at 11:39 AM