Research suggests decreased cotton production may be the result of California’s critical water supply and “pricing” conditions (Photo: Gargonia / Shutterstock)

By Audrey Hill, Feature Contributor, Valley Ag Voice

Most years, the end of March and the passing of the spring equinox marks the beginning of the end of the rainy season for the Central Valley. Snowpack, precipitation, and water level estimates are beginning to firm up and unfortunately 2021 does not have a very bright outlook. Dry years and wet years are a normal occurrence for the area. However, if not managed properly, dry years can be very harmful to the many crop producers of the Central Valley. This year, the drop in water availability is suspected to be the cause of a 25% drop in acreage used for cotton production.

The recent National Cotton Council (NCC) annual meeting, held via Zoom, reported that there could be a 25% decrease in cotton acreage for the year 2021. This is only a preliminary report and these numbers are only estimates, however still based in significant research. The California Cotton Ginners & Growers Association (CCGGA) briefly outlined this report in their newsletter The Cotton Chronicle and suggested that this decrease in production is due to the critical conditions of California’s water supply and “pricing.” Both major species of cotton grown in California, pima and upland, are suggested to be affected by this decline in acreage. The NCC estimated pima production to drop 27% percent (from 147,000 acers in 2020 to 108,000 acers). While upland is estimated to drop 18% (from 34,000 acres to 24,000 acres) coming to an average of a 25% decrease in cotton acreage for 2021. If these estimates become reality, “the overall cotton acreage would be the lowest planted cotton acreage in California since before 1920” according to The Cotton Chronicle. However, the CCGGA stated their optimism in the chronicle, adding that “prices and demand for cotton are on the increase, and with more storms on the way these numbers could change.”

The California Department of Water Resources reports that statewide snowpack survey measurements, as well as lake capacity measurements, point to an overall dry year for the state. As of Feb 21, 2021, statewide snow water content was at 61% of the March 1 average and 56% of the April 1 average. As of March 2, Lake Orville was at 55% average for this date and Lake Shasta, California’s largest surface reservoir was at 68% average for this date. This does not mean that California has already experienced ~60% of its water for the year 2021, but instead means that the amount of precipitation the state has had is only ~60% of what it usually is at this time. In her article “Water Year 2021: The Suspense Continues,” published on, Jeanine Jones, DWR Interstate Resources Manager comments that “A Miracle March is the state’s best hope for finishing the water year in better shape, although it is very unlikely that full recovery to normal surface water supply conditions would occur.”

As the year progresses and concerns about the dry Spring grow, initial 2021 water allotments for each water district are announced, however under tight watch. As The Cotton Chronicle states, agriculture water service contractors located south of the Delta are allocated 5% of their contract supply. M&I water service contractors south of Delta are allocated the greater of 55% of their historic use or public health and safety needs, whichever is greater. The San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors and San Joaquin Settlement Contractors are allocated 75% of their contract supply. The majority of California’s cotton farms fall under the agriculture water service contractors located south of the delta and therefore will receive 5% of their contract supply. These percentages are subject to change as the year progresses, however if the rainy season ends on a dry note, the CCGGA’s preliminary reports of a 25% decrease in cotton acreage could very easily become reality.

California grown cotton makes up approximately 7% of the cotton grown in the U.S., most of which is used to feed dairy cattle, according to the CCGGA. Byproducts include cottonseed oil and lint, both of which have a very long list of daily household uses such as cooking oil, salad dressing, cosmetics, soap, mops, cotton balls, paper, and currency. A 25% decrease in California cotton acreage and subsequent cotton production could mean an increase in the price of dairy feed and these household items.

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