Be Careful What You Pray For

California Cotton Farmers Cope With Water From Field To Legislature


It would be almost impossible to describe the past six months contrasted to the past four years in California if someone wasn’t living in the middle of it. Dry, parched ground that offered up nothing but a stubborn weed or two for years suddenly became navigable seemingly only by kayak or surfboard.

As the 2023 cotton planting date approached earlier this spring, it quickly became apparent entire cotton growing areas in California were going to have problems with excess water. This pistachio orchard close to fields that would have been planted in cotton shows the dramatic force of the water growers experienced.

“The bizarre weather we’ve had will have both positive and negative consequences,” said Roger Isom, president/CEO, California Cotton Ginner & Growers Association. “On a positive note, we had 100% water allocation from the state and federal water projects. 

“On the flip side, we received a lot of rain early in the year. While March 10 was the first day we could actually plant cotton, there wasn’t a field in the state we could have gotten into at that point.”

The rain and “atmospheric rivers” continued well into March transforming once ancient lake beds back to their aquatic origins. Tulare Lake — once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi — had been drained more than 100 years earlier to accommodate California’s burgeoning agriculture. As the rains kept coming, water began to inundate the old lake bed, flooding towns and thousands of acres of cropland. In addition to permanent crops like trees and vines, it became painfully obvious that even row crops such as cotton were going to be impacted.

Shifting From Pima To Acala

In California, as the rains persisted into March and beyond, a significant number of cotton farmers moved from planting Pima to the shorter-season Acala varieties.

As the planting window for cotton continued to move into the future, the prospects for Pima kept shrinking as growers eyed the shorter-season Acala varieties. Planting estimates will likely be unclear until the dust settles. Or in this case, until the mud dries. Final numbers for cotton will likely be less than 100,000 acres, which could break or set a new 100-year record low. 

“At mid-March, the situation just wasn’t progressing as fast as we would have liked,” said Dave German, central region manager, Buttonwillow Warehouse, Hanford, California. “The soil temperatures — and even the air temperatures — were too cool.”

Reservoirs On The Rise

As California’s reservoirs headed toward and exceeded “historical averages” in terms of water levels, many in the state’s ag industry point out the frustration of legislative gridlock. The legislation and politics are complicated. Current and potential litigation from any number of sources is also problematic. 

Governor Newsom signed Executive Order N-4-23 that specified the conditions to allow water users to divert water for recharge without state permits. The executive order suspended certain regulatory requirements under conditions of imminent risk of flooding.

Snow returned to the mountain ranges, which further added to water availability when temperatures warmed. In early June, Lake Shasta was at 118% of historical average and 98% of total capacity, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

About 41% of California’s total water supply comes from groundwater resources on an average annual basis. That percentage jumps as high as 58% in severe drought years. According to the California Department of Water, California has over 515 groundwater basins that can hold more than 850 million acre-feet while the state’s reservoirs only hold about 50 million acre-feet in major reservoirs.

The executive order signed by Governor Newsom in February provided at least some short-term water relief for basin recharge for the current year, but it’s anyone’s guess what will happen going forward.

“It’s maddening to sit here and know this excess water could have been put to good use for years if we were allowed to recharge the groundwater earlier,” said Vern Crawford, pest control advisor, Wilbur-Ellis (ret’d) Kern County, California. “Now, that we find ourselves with this gift from the sky we are ill-equipped and at least a day late and a dollar short to deal with it. Yes, the Governor signed a bill to enable groundwater recharge. But he did it almost after the fact. Where was this legislation when we could have taken maximum advantage of it?”

California’s Ag Future

“In terms of legislators and what they might be able to do, they need to move on several things,” Isom said.

If there was something resembling a “wish list” for California cotton farmers, Isom has a few bullet points.

• First, we need to finally move on additional water storage projects to capture water in years like this.

• Second, we need to expand water conveyance to be able to move water around the state and within the Valley.

• Third, we need to continue with the groundwater recharge projects and take advantage of the first two recommendations, which will only serve to enhance groundwater recharge.

Isom also echoed Crawford’s frustration. “It would be beneficial to loosen restrictions on pumping in the delta, especially in years of high flows like we are experiencing now,” Isom continued. “While California has done this now, we missed more than a month’s excess flows that could have been utilized to build up water storage for communities and farms throughout the state.”

Drought conditions across much of the western United States are expected to improve at least for the short-term, according to NOAA. However, it’s the long-term outlook that has many California growers rattled. “In terms of an eye-opener, this unusual situation has opened the eyes of the state to move forward on water storage, conveyance and groundwater recharge,” Isom said. “To what extent, we will have to wait and see, as the activists are fighting it every step of the way.”

Even with this year’s relatively bleak outlook for California cotton, Isom is not ready to give up on the crop or the prospects of better water management.

“There will always be demand for California cotton due to its quality, especially for Pima cotton,” Isom said. “It’s just a shame that in a year where we finally have water, it was too cold for so late that we really couldn’t plant as much as we would like. But with the lack of planting this year, we hope the demand will still be there in a big way next year!”

Brenda Carol is a freelance writer based in San Luis Obispo, California. She may be reached at

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