Wells are running dry in drought-weary Southwest as foreign-owned farms guzzle water to feed cattle overseas.
By Ella Nilsen, CNN; Photography by Rebecca Noble for CNN.
La Paz County, Arizona. CNN — Workers with the water district in Wenden, Arizona, saw something remarkable last year as they slowly lowered a camera into the drought-stricken town’s well: The water was moving.
But the aquifer which sits below the small desert town in the southwestern part of the state is not a river; it’s a massive, underground reservoir which stores water built up over thousands of years. And that water is almost always still.
Gary Saiter, a longtime resident and head of the Wenden Water Improvement District, said the water was moving because it was being pumped rapidly out of the ground by a neighboring well belonging to Al Dahra, a United Arab Emirates-based company farming alfalfa in the Southwest.
Al Dahra did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.
“The well guys and I have never seen anything like this before,” Saiter told CNN. The farm was “pumping and it was sucking the water through the aquifer.”
Groundwater is the lifeblood of the rural Southwest, but just as the Colorado River Basin is in crisis, aquifers are rapidly depleting from decades of overuse, worsening drought and rampant agricultural growth.
Residents and farms pull water from the same underground pools, and as the water table declines, the thing determining how long a well lasts is how deeply it was drilled.
Office manager Brianna Davis, left, chats with manager Gary Saiter, right, at Wenden Domestic Water Improvement District.
Now frustration is growing in Arizona’s La Paz County, as shallower wells run dry amid the Southwest’s worst drought in 1,200 years. Much of the frustration is pointed at the area’s huge, foreign-owned farms growing thirsty crops like alfalfa, which ultimately get shipped to feed cattle and other livestock overseas.
“You can’t take water and export it out of the state, there’s laws about that,” said Arizona geohydrologist Marvin Glotfelty, a well-drilling expert. “But you can take ‘virtual’ water and export it; alfalfa, cotton, electricity or anything created in part from the use of water.”
Residents and local officials say lax groundwater laws give agriculture the upper hand, allowing farms to pump unlimited water as long as they own or lease the property to drill wells into. In around 80% of the state, Arizona has no laws overseeing how much water corporate megafarms are using, nor is there any way for the state to track it.
But rural communities in La Paz County know the water is disappearing beneath their feet.
Shallow, residential wells in the county started drying up in 2015, local officials say, and deeper municipal well levels have steadily declined. In Salome, local water utility owner Bill Farr told CNN his well – which supplies water to more than 200 customers, including the local schools – is “nearing the end of its useful life.”
And in Wenden, water in the town well has been plummeting. Saiter told CNN the depth-to-water – how deep below the surface the top of the water table is – has dropped from about 100 feet in the late 1950s to about 540 feet in 2022, already far beyond what an average residential well can reach. Saiter is anxious the farms’ rapid water use could push the water table too low for the town well to draw safe water from.
La Paz County supervisor Holly Irwin told CNN getting the state to act on – or even acknowledge – the region’s dwindling water supply has been a “frustrating” yearslong battle which has left her community feeling “forgotten.”
Middle East agriculture companies “have depleted their [water], that’s why they are here,” Irwin said. “That’s what angers people the most. We should be taking care of our own, and we just allow them to come in, purchase property and continue to punch holes in the ground.”
A resource as good as gold
In 2018, Saudi Arabia finalized a ban on growing thirsty crops like alfalfa and hay to feed livestock and cattle. The reason was simple: the arid Middle East – also struggling with climate change-fueled drought – is running out of water, and agriculture is a huge consumer.
But vast dairy operations are a point of national pride in the Middle East, according to Eckart Woertz, director of the Germany-based GIGA Institute for Middle East Studies. So, they needed to find water somewhere else.
“They have all their cows there and they need feeding. That feedstock comes from abroad,” Woertz told CNN.
Groundwater gushes into a cement canal near the Fondomonte farm in Vicksburg, Arizona.
Valued at $14.3 billion, the Almarai Company – which owns about 10,000 acres of farmland in Arizona under its subsidiary, Fondomonte – is one of the biggest players in the Middle East’s dairy supply. The company also owns about 3,500 acres in agriculture-heavy Southern California, according to public land records, where they use Colorado River water to irrigate crops.
Woertz said while most of the company’s cattle feed is purchased on the open market, Alamarai took the extra step of buying farmland abroad, as part of a growing trend in foreign-owned farmland in the US. Foreign-owned farmland in the West increased from around 1.25 million acres in 2010 to nearly three million acres in 2020, according to data from the US Department of Agriculture. In the Midwest, foreign-owned farmland has nearly quadrupled.
“It gives you that sense you’re closer to the source,” Woertz added. “The sense that you own land or lease land somewhere else and have direct bilateral access [to water] gives you a sense of maybe false security.”
In the high desert of Arizona, emerald-green fields stretch for miles alongside dry tumbleweeds and Saguaro cactus.
The Fondomonte-owned Vicksburg Ranch near Salome is massive. The company spent $47.5 million to buy nearly 10,000 acres of land there in 2014, and it leases additional farmland from the state.
Bill Farr, owner of Salome Water Company, looks at his water pump and water storage tank. Farr supplies water to the entire town of Salome and has since 1971.
Hay bales are stored at Al Dahra Farms in Wenden.
Huge storage facilities were erected to hold the harvests. Rows of small houses were built for the farm’s workers, all surrounded by flowering desert shrubs. Tractor trailers filled with bales of alfalfa hay rumble down the highway, which local officials told CNN they had to repair because of the increased agricultural traffic.
The alfalfa on the trucks is eventually shipped to feed cattle in Saudi Arabia.
“They’ve definitely increased production,” Irwin said. “They’ve grown so much since they’ve been here.”
Almarai was transparent about why it wanted the land, according to an article on the purchase from Arab News: The transaction was part of “continuous efforts to improve and secure its supply of the highest quality alfalfa hay from outside the Kingdom to support its dairy business.”
“It is also in line with the Saudi government direction toward conserving local resources,” Arab News added.
Representatives of Fondomonte declined an interview request for this story, but Jordan Rose, the company’s Arizona attorney, provided a statement: “Fondomonte decided to invest in the southwest United States just as hundreds of other agricultural businesses have because of the high-quality soils, and climatic conditions that allow growth of some of the finest quality alfalfa in the world.”
Rose added the farm installed “the most technologically advanced conservation oriented watering systems available on the market.”
Cacti dot the hillsides outside of Salome, Ariz. on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022.
Indeed, there is nothing illegal about foreign-owned farming in the US. And many American farmers use the West’s water to grow crops which are eventually exported around the globe.
But amid the worst drought in centuries, residents and officials have questioned the merit of allowing countries, which themselves are running out of water, unlimited access to a resource as good as gold in the Southwest.
Cynthia Campbell, water resources management adviser for the city of Phoenix, has been watching the La Paz County water situation with frustration.
Phoenix currently gets most of its water from local rivers and the Central Arizona Project, which diverts Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson. But it could use rural groundwater as a safety net in the coming years if the city’s primary sources are further restricted.
That is, if there is any groundwater left by then.
“We are literally exporting our economy overseas,” Campbell said. “I’m sorry, but there’s no Saudi Arabian milk coming back to Southern California or Arizona. The value of that agricultural output is not coming through in value to the US.”
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