Pinal County — Arizona’s top Upland cotton production area with 95,300 harvested acres in 2010 — is a great place to check the pulse on producers’ crop planting intentions for 2012.

About 40 cotton producers gathered at the Galloping Goose Restaurant in Coolidge in February to learn more about the high-yielding cotton varieties recommended this year by Monsanto-Deltapine and Dow AgroSciences-PhytoGen, the meeting sponsors.

The latest and greatest cotton varieties on the market drew producers’ interests. Yet the issue of limited water supplies amid volatile commodity prices was also definitely on producers’ minds.

Arizona agriculture is struggling through the 15th or so consecutive year of drought. For many Arizona farmers, short-term hopes of a wet winter have evaporated. Disappointing rain and snow levels have let farmers down once again. The bottom line is more fallowed farm ground in central Arizona along with higher alfalfa prices could shift cropping plans this year to less cotton and more alfalfa.

The National Cotton Council predicts a 7.5 percent reduction in U.S. cotton acreage this year.

Cotton producer Bruce Bartlett, a 32-year farming veteran, operates Bartlett & Bartlett Farms in the Coolidge and Eloy areas in Pinal County. His traditional crop mix includes upland cotton (60 percent), alfalfa (30 percent) and small grains — barley and wheat (10 percent).

Bartlett plans to grow 15 percent to 20 percent less cotton — about 2,600 cotton acres this year — and slightly more alfalfa (650 acres total) for two reasons. The first is extremely limited surface water allocations from the San Carlos Irrigation and Drainage District (SCIDD) and second, higher prices for alfalfa in recent months.

About 75 percent of Brandt’s ground is irrigated with Central Arizona Project water from the Colorado River which is even more limited this year and more costly, along with well water. The other 25 percent of the acreage will receive a minuscule surface water allocation from the SCIDD this year. “I may idle about 550 acres due to the drought in the San Carlos (system),” Bartlett said.

The SCIDD captures rainfall, runoff, and snowpack melt in New Mexico and eastern Arizona where it moves into San Carlos Lake in Gila County. If full, San Carlos Lake would be Arizona’s largest lake. In reality, the reservoir is nearly empty on the water gauge — often 98 percent to 99 percent water deficient in recent years.

“This year the water allocation could be about less than one-half acre foot per acre,” Bartlett said. “The allocation last year was about 1 acre foot.”