LAS CRUCES, N.M. - There’s a silver - make that a white lining - to New Mexico's extended drought. New Mexico State University agricultural experts say cotton acreage is likely to go through the roof this spring as farmers seek drought-tolerant alternatives that can still bring in the bucks.

The National Cotton Council's early season planting forecast for New Mexico indicates a 31.5 percent increase in the amount of cotton being planted. That would push the state's total to nearly 74,000 acres this year.

"That big number may or may not hold, but we'll definitely be up," said Denise McWilliams, an agronomist with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service. "Cotton is a preferred choice for many producers because it effectively uses minimal amounts of moisture. It's very efficient at pulling moisture through the top three feet of the soil."

New Mexico ranks among the top 20 cotton producing states, with most acreage in southern New Mexico's Mesilla Valley and eastern New Mexico plains. According to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service, the state's producers planted 56,000 acres of upland cotton in 2003, worth an estimated $22.7 million, along with 6,000 acres worth $5.6 million of American-Pima cotton.

High-end Pima cottons are bred with long fibers or staple characteristics that target specialty-clothing markets requiring ultrasoft textures.

Timely rains have helped lift many farmers' optimism for a good start for all crops this planting season. "If these rains continue through April, we'll have a substantial amount of moisture in the top 12 inches of the soil, which will give these crops a head start," McWilliams said. "Most yield losses, whether vegetable or production crops, are caused by lack of early season moisture."

Fortunately, it's been a wet winter. Preliminary figures show that last month was the 10th wettest February since 1895, said Charlie Liles, chief meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Albuquerque. The trend has carried into March with precipitation above normal, he said. A third of the reporting stations in New Mexico have recorded at least half an inch of rain.

But even with the recent rains, the drought is holding fast. This week's U.S. Drought Monitor shows drought conditions continuing to cover much of the state with a band of exceptional drought forecast for parts of southern New Mexico.

The problem for all crops is whether farmers will have enough supplemental ground water to produce a viable crop, since they aren't likely to get it from reservoirs or rivers this season. Carlsbad and Elephant Butte irrigation districts report that 12-inch water allotments are anticipated for each acre in the districts - a third of what farmers normally get.

New Mexico's largest and most popular lake, Elephant Butte, is expected to hit its lowest level since the late 1970s by the end of summer, said Craig Runyan, coordinator of NMSU's Water Task Force.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projections suggest that it could take two decades to restore water levels in reservoirs in New Mexico, even under normal weather conditions. "It will take time to reverse the cumulative effects the long-term drought has had on New Mexico," Runyan said. "It took us several years to get into a drought, and it will take several years to recover from these problems."

Norman Martin is an editor with New Mexico State University.

e-mail: nsmartin@nmsu.edu