In the arid West region of the Cotton Belt, the physical delivery of water to his crop is the most important process a cotton producer must consider.
The complicated matter of water delivery via canals, irrigation pumps or viaducts is further muddied by legal, legislative and regulatory issues that the Western producer encounters – and all of this in the face of drought.
In areas where it rains between three and 14 inches a year, it is a fight to ensure that food and fiber can be produced. The watersheds of the major river valleys in the West provide great quantities of water, but the management of the water often results in much frustration.
In the Pecos Valley of New Mexico, drought and legal action have lead to decreased amounts of water for ag.
“We have not had a full allotment of water for several years,” says Carlsbad cotton producer Alisa Ogden.
A 2003 settlement agreement provided for New Mexico to purchase farm land in the area and allow the as-signed water to flow into Texas. While Ogden says she prefers cotton as a good part of her rotation, due to limited water, last year she grew no cotton.
“We went 22 months with four inches of rain,” Ogden says.
Limited Options Available
Water from the Pecos River is the only option, and that is divided between towns and agricultural operations, with a proportion guaranteed to Texas downriver.
Rio Grande River cotton producer Bobby Sloan survives with 80 percent of his normal allotment.
“Water is at a premium,” he says. “It’s tough to give it to cotton when we have higher value crops.”
In Arizona, on the upper Gila River, there are similar issues. A water settlement with the Gila River Indian Community allows for only six acre-feet of water to be pulled from the river or pumped from the ground. This year it has worked out well for producer Dennis Palmer of Graham County due to good rains in the watershed.
In the central valley of Arizona, producers rely on allocated water from the Gila and Salt Rivers and water canalled in from the Colorado River.
EPA’s Actions Being Watched
The Arizona Cotton Growers Association and the Arizona Farm Bureau are also taking a hard look at how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will enforce the Clean Water Act’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System. It could heavily affect water use in this region.
Like much of the West, California has been in drought conditions for several years. This year the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which provide water to the valley, have had about a 120 percent snow pack.
“We’re in pretty good shape,” says Tulare producer Mark Watte.
However, in the drought conditions of the previous three years, the aquifer has dropped and needs to be re-charged. Despite this situation, Watte says his area is reasonably stable compared to the western part of the valley where there is more dependence on water brought in from the northern part of the 500 mile-long valley.
More Legislative Battles
For those who depend on that water, the California Water Bond is a hot topic. The Safe, Clean and Reliable Drinking Water Supply Act of 2010, as it is known officially, seeks more than $11 billion to revamp California’s water predicament.
The bond has been delayed at the polls for at least for two more years and faces opposition on many fronts. But, for now, it is the largest, comprehensive solution to California’s water woes, which many California farmers are supporting.
Brent Murphree is the Cotton Board’s Regional Communication Manager for the West. He resides in Maricopa, Ariz.