Debate over water rights intensifies as Saudis buy up swaths of US farmland

In the face of water restrictions at home, a Saudi Arabian company is turning to the American Southwest, where US farmers are contending with persistent drought.

Robert Harbison/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Water diverted from the Salt River runs through the Roosevelt Canal for sprinkler irrigation on an alfalfa field in Mesa, Ariz., in this file photo.

The American Southwest may be parched, but it's still inviting for Saudi Arabia's agriculture industry, thanks to loose water restrictions for farming. 

The kingdom's largest dairy company has bought about 14,000 acres of farmland in California and Arizona to grow alfalfa for its 170,000 cows in the face of tightening Saudi laws. 

Almarai Co. is looking to take advantage of easy access to water from the Colorado River in California's Palo Verde Valley and few well-pumping restrictions near Vicksburg, Ariz., to grow the thirsty feed crop. This move ignites a fresh debate over water rights in the western United States, as farms across the region tap underground water reserves and people in cities shorten their showers and skip watering their lawns.

"We've got them coming, moving in here and using our natural resources up. Why isn't anyone paying attention to the ground we live on?" Holly Irwin, county supervisor for La Paz County, Arizona, told the Associated Press. Almarai purchased more than 9,800 acres in La Paz County in 2014.

Restrictions were imposed on well-pumping in Arizona cities under the 1980 Groundwater Management Act, but the region Almarai is moving into is exempt.

In the Palo Verde Valley, settlers lay claim to the Colorado River in 1877 under "first in time, first in right" policy. Almarai has purchased about 3,790 acres along the waterway in the past couple of years. 

Back in Saudi Arabia, the agriculture industry had worked to keep its crops at home for decades. But about eight years ago, that shifted and companies began looking to farms abroad. 

The American farmland isn't the only international venture for Almarai. The company already has farms across the globe to minimize any breaks in supply.

"The cows feed multiple times a day, and they need to be certain that they are always able to fulfill that unwavering demand," Jordan Rose, an attorney for the company's Arizona unit, told AP.

Previously, as laws tightened at home, Arab companies have increasingly turned to the US to purchase hay. Last year Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates collectively made up 10 percent of US exports of alfalfa and other grasses.

Almarai isn't the only Arab company to shift toward farming in the American Southwest. Al Dahra ACX Global Inc., owned by Al Dahra Agriculture Co. of United Arab Emirates, also has farms across Southern California and Arizona. 

These land purchases have been both celebrated and bemoaned. 

Some have noted that Almarai employs strong water-conservation methods and the Arizona Department of Water Resources maps even suggest that water in wells on Almarai's La Paz County property have risen recently with no change in their footprint. Others suggest the company's presence in California has stimulated economic growth among the farming community. 

But Christopher Thornberg, an economist at the University of California at Riverside, says alfalfa farms are "a shocking waste of a resource" when it comes to water. "At some point in time," he told AP, "we have to face the fact that the state cannot continue to prosper under the current circumstances."

Ultimately, said Daniel Putnam, an agronomist at the University of California, Davis, "Southern California and Arizona have good water rights. Who knows if that will change, but that's the way things are now."

This report contains material from the Associated Press. 

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