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January 2018
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Thirsty Cotton

How much water does it take to produce one cotton t-shirt? 400 gallons. Driving north in the Central valley of California we passed cotton field after cotton field. The giant bales of cotton were 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. California’s 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.

Why is this important? In the Central valley, the annual rainfall is between six 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.



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