Feb 25 2014
In all of the coverage on the current drought, agri-business is claiming an
end-of-the-world scenario if the Central Valley in California is not capable
of supplying all of the vegetables it does now to the rest of the nation.
Little or nothing is said about the cotton grown using precious water,
irrigated by the State Water Project. It does not take an agricultural
expert to see the cotton growing along Interstate Five. As we speed along at
80 MPH, we can see the California Aqueduct and the fields of cotton before,
during and after harvest. Cotton is very thirsty!
The following is an excerpt from Water Shock, The Day Southern California
Went Dry. The principal character, Charlie Reagan, is telling a true story
about cotton foolishly grown in the Soviet Union that destroyed the Aral Sea.
Charlie released a heavy sigh. “Okay, just one more point. George and Judy,
with their population migration backgrounds, need to hear this.” He
explained that the result, compounded over time, was a colossal underpricing
of waters full economic and environmental worth. The twentieth centurys
most breathtaking example was the former Soviet Unions inadvertent
destruction of central Asias Aral Sea …its hydraulic Chernobyl. Less than a
century of well-intentioned efforts to transform arid central Asia into a
cotton belt, which rendered the nation self-sufficient in water-thirsty
white gold, ended as an object lesson in the catastrophic side effects of
misguided ecosystem engineering. End note 24 in Water Shock.
But, Charlie, Judy said, “wasn.t the Soviet Union just attempting to do what the Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation were doing in themid-nineteen hundreds?”
“Youre right,” he responded. ”And with similar results. Granted there were
some significant positive trade-offs, but given the billions spent for dams
and aqueducts, in the end it was unsustainable, as we look back now. Had
water been priced like the commodity it is, the socioeconomic effects of the
69 quake would not have caused the massive relocation of people to the
Northwest and East.”
How much water does it take to produce one cotton t-shirt? 400 gallons.
Cotton field after cotton field can be seen driving north in the Central
valley of California. After harvest time, the giant bales of cotton are
stacked alongside each of the fields.
Each bale can produce about 750 cotton shirts, so doing the math, each bale
takes 300,000 gallons of water. Average production is approximately one bale
per acre, however it can be higher. California produces two types or species
of cottons. One is the Upland or Acala types and the other is the extra
long staple or Pima type. Acreages of Upland or Acala types have ranged
from 436,000 in 2005 to 72,000 in 2009.
Average plantings for this period was 221,000 acres, and production average
per year was 602,000 bales. Acreage of ELS or Pima types have ranged from
231,000 in 2005 to 118,000 in 2009 with the last 5 year average of 207,200
acres and an average production of 534,900 bales. Californias production of
ELS or Pima cotton represents approximately 90% of the total U.S.
production. Production of upland types represent only about 4% of U.S.
annual production on average. So how much water is consumed in California
for cotton production?
Multiplying 300,000 gallons times 207,200 is 62.2 billion gallons. How many
acre-feet is that? 190,797, or the equivalent of enough water to serve
almost half of the County of San Diego’s water needs.
I am not a fan of government regulation. No central authority should tell
agri-business not to grow cotton, so what can be done to relieve this
situation? Market pricing works. The reason cotton is grown in the Central
Valley is because water is cheap. Raise the price of water, and suddenly the
urge to plant more acreage in cotton grows less desirable.
Why is this important? In the Central valley, the annual rainfall is between
two and twelve inches annually. Cotton production should be shifted to those
areas of the U.S. where rainfall of 20-22 inches is common. The sole
reason California supplies 90% of the total US production of Pima cotton is
cheap water. Solution to the water crisis? Raise the price of water. Will
this be met with intense lobbying by corporate agribusiness? Absolutely.
Does it make sense? Yes.
End Note 24. Steven Solomon, Water: the Epic Struggle for Wealth,
Power, and Civilization (New York: Harper, 2010), 377.
Milton N. Burgess, P. E., FASPE
Author of Water Shock, The Day Southern California Went Dry