A Saudi Arabian company is growing hay using water wells between Parker and Phoenix and then shipping it to feed cows back home. And, get this: their water usage is unrestricted in Arizona law, which means they can use as much as their wells can pump. Anybody see any problems?
A reporter for an NPR program set alarm bells ringing when he appeared in a recent story about large foreign companies buying up land in La Paz County for the water rights.
Nathan Halverson told Reveal News that because Saudi Arabia has used up most of its ancient groundwater aquifer – natural springs that were so old they are mentioned in the bible – the country has been seeking supplies of alfalfa overseas.
As part of the effort, Saudi Arabia’s largest dairy company, Almarai, completed the purchase of 9,834 acres of farmland in Vicksburg – a 46-mile drive from Parker – back in March for $48 million. The purchase was composed of 3,604 acres of freehold land, 3080 acres of agricultural lease hold land and 3,150 acres of grazing lease hold land.
“They got about 15 water wells when they purchased the property. Now, each one of those wells can pump about 1.5 billion gallons of water. It’s an incredible amount of water they’re going to be drawing up from that aquifer underground,” Halverson told NPR.
Although the land was already used for growing corn, cotton and other crops, Halverson’s sources told him the farm is now consuming significantly more water. And Arizona’s laws allow it, unchecked.
“The laws were put in place in the ‘70s, and kudos to Arizona — they were really one of the first states to put in groundwater laws,” Halverson said. “But the laws were really designed for local or domestic farming. The idea that another country would come and essentially export your water via crops just wasn’t really around 30, 40 years ago. And so the laws that are in place are really inadequate for dealing with this new trend.”
A company connected to the United Arab Emirates also has an operation just down the road, according to Halverson. An Associated Press piece quoted La Paz County Supervisor Holly Irwin, whose district includes Vicksburg.
“We just want to make sure the people who have lived here, who have invested in La Paz County will not run out of water,” Irwin told the AP. “Back when the laws were made, they probably didn’t think of this problem. Of course now water became a huge issue. They’re talking about droughts all over.”
The Arizona Republic published an editorial Friday agreeing that the issue is that the laws have not kept up with the factors causing groundwater depletion:
“Arizona is part of a global economy. We export. We import. And water is one of the things that gets exported in the form of semiconductors, cotton, salad or alfalfa. We don’t have laws prohibiting foreign investment. And we shouldn’t. Nor do we have a law that restricts how much groundwater Saudi, Chinese, California or Arizona farm owners can pump if they are located outside specific water management areas. Should we? The answer may be yes.”
It strikes many observers as shocking when they discover that rural well owners – even those running huge farming operations – can pump as much water as they want with those wells, even in the drought-beleaguered southwestern U.S of 2015. But the Arizona Department of Water Resources says La Paz County has not sought to have groundwater regulated as it is in Phoenix and other conservation areas, because the Department had concluded the the county had enough water to meet its demands for another 100 years. Perhaps that estimate will be revised in light of the new operations.
A Goodyear farmer familiar with the operation in Vicksburg said the current operators know how to farm efficiently, and an ArabNews.com article said the operation is using water-smart modern methods such as drip irrigation. Still, concerns about the water table are being discussed at the state level.
Arizona’s governor Doug Ducey recently announced an initiative to evaluate water demands and challenges, including groundwater modeling. Water usage and conservation is balanced with economic benefit in most such endeavors, restricting water use for sustainability but not so much that liberty or economic activity suffers.
“Beginning in the late 1970s, Saudi landowners were given free rein to pump the aquifers so that they could transform the desert into irrigated fields,” Halverson wrote. “By the 1990s, farmers were pumping an average of 5 trillion gallons a year.”
Halverson’s conclusion is that the Saudis drained their massive underground water source – which had served the people there for thousands of years – within a single generation.