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How Saudi Arabia's international search for water led them to Arizona

By Greg Hahne
Published: Friday, June 23, 2023 - 4:46am
Updated: Friday, June 23, 2023 - 8:32am

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An irrigation canal and siphon tubes water an alfalfa field in Arizona.

For years, there’s been simmering anger over a Saudi Arabian dairy company using Arizona groundwater to grow alfalfa here and ship it back to the Middle East.

As the state’s water crisis has deepened, that anger is now boiling over, with cries from residents, local officials and state leaders to intervene.

While the laws in place limit what can be done, many Arizonans are wondering how an international search for water ever led to the bone-dry Southwest in the first place.

In La Paz County, near the state’s western border, an alfalfa farm lies a few miles from Interstate 10 and U.S. 60.

It’s become one of the epicenters of Arizona’s water crisis, in part because there’s no limit on how much groundwater the farm can use. And in part because the precious water from one desert is being used to feed cattle in another, halfway around the world.

The Saudi Arabian government had started to push agricultural companies to look abroad for water intensive crops. In 2011, the Saudi agriculture giant Almarai acquired an Argentinian company called Fondomonte. 

A few years later, in 2014, a subsidiary — Fondomonte, Arizona — purchased the La Paz County land.

But the ties between Arizona and the Arabian Peninsula date back to the 1940s.

“It's a long set of relationships with largely connected to desert agriculture, but a number of other broader types of political, ecological, scientific ties that bind the two places. And yeah, it's kind of a fascinating story because you have this sort of recurrence of the same sorts of connections that just keep getting reinvented over and over again, even though we in Arizona often don't know that history, we don't think of Arizona having this,” said Syracuse professor Natalie Koch.

She says the land in La Paz County was already being used by a local farmer before the Fondomonte purchase.

“But they were able to apply for a number of new well permits and then basically increased the alfalfa production on that same site because they were able to just pump more water,” Koch said.

There’s no limit on how much can be pumped there, because Arizona regulates only urban areas.

Fondomonte’s water use has drawn outrage from local residents and elected officials such as Attorney General Kris Mayes.

“Using Arizona groundwater for that and sending the alfalfa back to Saudi Arabia and you know, obviously I am very opposed to this use of Arizona's water,” she said.

Kris Mayes
Gage Skidmore/CC BY 2.0
Kris Mayes in 2022.

Mayes flagged discrepancies in the company’s paperwork, leading to state officials recently revoking — at least temporarily — Fondomonte’s permission to drill two new wells.

“It had claimed on one part of the application to be the owner of the land in Butler Valley, when in fact the state Land Department is the owner,” Mayes said.

She made water security one of her top talking points while running for attorney general last year. 

“Well, fundamentally we need to overhaul our groundwater laws so that these kinds of deals and these kinds of wells don't happen. We have to update the 1980 Groundwater Act and we have to create a whole lot more AMA's, active management areas, so that we can manage our groundwater supplies and so that people can't, companies from, you know, Saudi Arabia or any other country for that matter, can't come into the state of Arizona and exploit our most precious natural resource,” Mayes said.

Groundwater, which can take thousands of years to accumulate, is not considered a renewable resource.

Aquifers can be replenished through natural processes. The problem, according to ASU professor Tianfang Xu, is that they can’t be replenished fast enough.

“It's like a saving account, right? We have been working hard to save money over thousands of years. But maybe we're saving like $10 for each year for 1,000 years. But right now we're withdrawing money at a rate of $100, or even $1,000 every year, so it won't take long for the saving account to become over drafted,” said Xu.

And over drafting affects more than just water. Fondomonte’s farmland has sunk nearly 10 inches in the last 13 years.

“So we know for sure that if we pump too much from groundwater, then one of the undesired consequence is land subsidence. As we pump from groundwater, we are changing how the stress is distributed between water and aquifer material, right? So when we pump, we actually increase the stress being applied on the aquifer, so like a squeezing a sponge. And as we squeeze that sponge, we're reducing the volume of the aquifer and some reduction in volume is not reversible,” Xu said.

But knowing how much water is actually held in one of these basins is challenging, and it isn’t clear exactly how much has been used. Xu is working on developing machine learning models to help make that process easier. 

“So machine learning in my view is a really great way to discover some relation among the data that we are not aware of. So it's data-driven modeling based on machine learning and is very different from classical physical process modeling technique in that for physical based models, we have to know these rules like we know for sure if the precipitation, if there's rainfall then there's no irrigation. But that's actually not true. Because, not every farmer follows that rule, right? Actually, many do not. Machine learning, on the other hand, takes the bottom up approach. We don't have any rules assumed. We just look at the data and try to use statistical algorithms to explain the data.” Xu said.

Koch said that similar situations abroad that led Almarai to Arizona has been a lesson for many citizens in the state. 

“You had the farming in Saudi Arabia getting to a crisis point where the government essentially said. Oh wait, we can't do this anymore. And I think that Arizona is kind of on that cusp of realizing that.” Koch said. 

There’s a lot of anger directed at Fondomonte and Saudi Arabia. But Koch says the real problem is Arizona’s inability to regulate its own resources.

“There is a bigger structural problem with the way that the Saudi company is able to exploit Arizona’s outdated water regulations, which mean that they are not being charged for the groundwater that they are pumping at this particular farm, so some people do take a more critical stance and understand that that it's a bigger set of questions about Arizona's political actors,” Koch said.

Katie Hobbs water announcement
Katherine Davis-Young/KJZZ
Gov. Katie Hobbs announces Arizona will no longer approve construction in areas around Phoenix that depend solely on groundwater on June 1, 2023.

This month, Arizona officials announced new restrictions on housing construction on the fringes of Phoenix due to the lack of guaranteed water supply. But that’s within an urban management area. For rural Arizona, there is currently little that can be done.

“These are not problems that foreigners have caused. These are Arizona's domestic policy problems. Arizona has the tools to solve some of these policy loopholes. Start monitoring groundwater use. Charge the users for their use, like these are really, really basic policy questions that Arizonans can deal with,” Koch said.

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