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King Cotton booms in California. But what about the water issue?

December 20, 2010 |  9:56 am

Cotton module Rising commodity prices have kicked off a cotton boom in central California. And though California's current production numbers are a pittance compared with the 1990s, when more than 1 million acres of cotton flourished, farmers are ramping up -- particularly in the San Joaquin Valley, historically the heart of the state's cotton industry.

Growers were expected to plant a total of 309,000 acres of Pima and upland cotton this year, up from 201,000 last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.

A similar movement is happening in the South, Southwest and elsewhere in rural America. Nationwide, the total acreage of cotton planted grew nearly 21% this year, to 11.04 million acres. The amount of cotton harvested? It jumped 51%.

But whether this boom will bust depends on a number of factors.

There's the question of whether investors will continue to drive up cotton prices, as part of a broader push into the commodity markets as a hedge against inflation and the risk of further devaluation of the dollar and other paper currencies. There's the question of how much support -- and how many subsidies -- cotton will have in future federal farm bills.

And, of course, there's perhaps the biggest question of all: Will the water be available to grow cotton?

That's a key question -- and one that no one can yet answer. Places such as Fresno, Kings, Kern and Tulare counties have long been among California's top cotton-producing counties. Yet for years, as water availability dwindled and the demand for feed from area dairies and less thirsty crops rose, these areas have been losing cotton acreage to trees, vines and silage crops.

Now, the dairies are in trouble. So are the wineries. And farmers' future water availability is still very much an unknown.

"This rise is cotton is great, but I think it could be short-lived because of the water issue," Corcoran Mayor Larry Hanshew said in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times. "If there's no water, then there's no cotton."

To learn more about the current cotton boom, check out this story and the paper's photo gallery. Or you can watch the video below to get an overview on the topic.

-- P.J. Huffstutter

Photo: A cover is placed over a cotton pile at Stone Land in Stratford, Calif. Demand for the commodity also has been a boon for cotton-related businesses. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times