Hemp as a Water-Saving Alternative to Cotton in Arizona

Cotton, one of the staple textile materials used in the United States, is a thirsty crop. Many locations that grow cotton, such as Arizona, are in the midst of serious droughts and water shortages. Because Arizona is lacking the sufficient levels of water to grow cotton, water basins, aquifers and the Colorado River are being drained by farmers to water their crop. As a result, an environmental footprint is being left behind. Hemp, an equally effective crop requiring less than half the amount of water as cotton, has the potential to conserve water in Arizona, therefore lessening the devastating damage inflicted on the environment caused by the draining of water for cotton farming.

Despite the current drought and water shortages in Arizona, farmers continue to grow and harvest cotton and there is no end in sight. Large insurance subsidies are given to cotton farmers by the government; in result, making cotton farming the most economically safe crop to grow. Federal support largely contributes to the prominence and persistence of cotton farming in Arizona with little concern for the water shortage and environmental damage caused by continuing to grow the crop. According to Abraham Lustgarten, a senior environmental reported and co-producer of Killing the Colorado, “Over the last 20 years, Arizona’s farmers have collected more than $1.1 billion in cotton subsidies.” With steady money rolling in from the government, farmers, in their minds, have no reason to discontinue cotton farming. If government support continues at this rate, Arizona will continue to farm cotton. Consequently, the state will continue to worsen the already prominent water shortage.

Due to the scarcity of water in hot, dry climates, the gathering of water from alternative sources to be used for the production of cotton is creating a negative environmental footprint. Rivers, lakes, reserves, reclaimed water and groundwater are all being drained and as a result, the Colorado River and groundwater sources are dangerously low. When water sources run low, the water table, the level at which water sits under the ground, decreases. When the water table lowers, wells and water reserves require further drilling and digging, often times resulting in a lesser water output. Water pumping in Arizona has “resulted in water-level declines of between 300 and 500 feet in much of the area.” When water is taken from a river, the Colorado River in Arizona’s case, the interaction between aquifers and water sources becomes irregular. The USGS Water Science School states, “A related effect of groundwater pumping is the lowering of groundwater levels below the depth that streamside or wetland vegetation needs to survive. The overall effect is a loss of riparian vegetation and wildlife habitat.” Because cotton requires such large quantities of water that Arizona does not have, the damages inflicted upon the environment from groundwater and surface water draining will only continue and worsen if changes are not made.

The water situation in Arizona is dire, and a solution needs to be implemented. Hemp, a crop with identical textile capability as cotton, has the potential to solve the water shortage by replacing cotton. Hemp requires far less water than cotton, requiring less water drained from the Colorado River and groundwater reserves. According to the World Wildlife Fund, cotton requires around 20,000 liters, or roughly 5,283 gallons of water to yield only about 2.2 pounds of cotton. Hemp, on the other hand, requires only 79-132 gallons to produce the same 2.2 pounds output as water guzzling cotton. Not only does hemp conserve water, the crop also has the same, if not better, textile capabilities as cotton. Hemp is far more durable, better wearing, and cleaner than cotton. Because hemps textile capabilities are superior to cotton, historically, hemp was the choice textile over cotton. Ships in the Middle Ages used hemp for reliable sails and durable ropes because hemp proved to withstand the saltwater far better than cotton. Because hemp uses less than half the water to yield the same output as cotton and possesses the same textile capabilities, switching from cotton to hemp would be a logical decision, and a step in the right direction, towards the solution of the water shortage in Arizona.

Although hemp has the ability to decrease the environmental footprint left by the river and groundwater draining used to grow cotton, the crop is illegal to commercially grow in many states. Hemp and marijuana are commonly associated with one another and the controversial status of marijuana is unfortunately often linked to hemp as well. Both hemp and marijuana are from the same genus, cannabis, and are classified as the same species of that genus: cannabis sativa. According to Patricia Leigh Brown, a writer for the New York Times, “the epidermal glands of marijuana secrete a resin of euphoria-inducing delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, or T.H.C., a substance all but lacking in industrial hemp.” Only products made from hemp containing less than 0.3% THC are legal to sell and ship. However, because a miniscule amount of THC is found in hemp, controversy surrounds whether hemp should be considered a Schedule 1 drug like marijuana, therefore making the water-saving crop illegal in many states including Arizona.

Growing cotton in the dry climate of Arizona is environmentally devastating and far from efficient, yet farmers still continue to grow the crop resulting in the pumping of thousands of gallons of water from the Colorado River and the depletion of groundwater. Hemp, a misunderstood crop requiring less than half the amount of water and possessing the same textile capabilities as cotton, has the potential to lessen the environmental footprint caused by diminishing water resources by replacing cotton in Arizona. A solution to water draining needs to be implemented and carried through before the environmental consequences become too large to repair. Hemp has the potential to be the solution.


sophiaSophia Rossi lives in Divide, Colorado. She enjoys painting, writing, and walking her two dogs in the mountains. She is currently working towards an Art degree at Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs Colorado.