September 24, 2023

In rural Arizona’s La Paz County, on the state’s rugged border with California, the choice by a Saudi-owned dairy firm to develop alfalfa within the American Southwest for livestock within the Gulf kingdom first raised eyebrows practically a decade in the past. Now, worsening drought has centered new consideration on the corporate and whether or not Arizona must be doing extra to guard its groundwater sources.

Amid a broader investigation by the state lawyer normal, Arizona final week rescinded a pair of permits that will have allowed Fondomonte Arizona, a subsidiary of Almarai Co., to drill greater than 1,000 toes (305 meters) into the water desk to pump as much as 3,000 gallons (11 kiloliters) of water per minute to irrigate its forage crops.

In an interview with The Related Press, Legal professional Basic Kris Mayes mentioned she thought most Arizonans see it as “outrageous” that the state is permitting foreign-owned firms “to stay a straw in our floor and use our water without spending a dime to develop alfalfa and ship it dwelling to Saudi Arabia. We simply can’t — within the midst of an epic drought — afford to do dumb issues with water within the state of Arizona anymore.”

Mayes, a Democrat, sought the revocations after she mentioned her workplace had discovered inconsistencies within the allow purposes. Mayes vowed to look into Fondomonte’s operations and water use final 12 months after the Arizona Republic reported that the Arizona State Land Division leased the corporate 1000’s of acres of farmland for under market worth.

Fondomonte didn’t reply to a number of requests for remark from the AP. Its legal professionals have mentioned beforehand that the corporate legally leased and bought land within the U.S. and spent hundreds of thousands on infrastructure enhancements.

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Years of drought have ratcheted up stress on water customers throughout the West, significantly in states like Arizona, which depends closely on the dwindling Colorado River. The drought has additionally made groundwater — lengthy utilized by farmers and rural residents with little restriction — much more vital for customers throughout the state.

Saudi Arabia, battling its personal water shortages up to now decade, restricted the expansion of some forage crops within the nation. That Fondomonte selected Arizona as a spot to develop such crops has angered some within the state, which has confronted two consecutive years of federal water cuts from the Colorado River, a major water supply for the state.

Officers from each events have criticized using state water by foreign-owned entities, with Gov. Katie Hobbs, additionally a Democrat, saying in her January state of the state deal with that she, too, would look into the follow. The state’s groundwater, Hobbs mentioned, “must be used to assist Arizonans, not international enterprise pursuits.”

That very same month, Republican state legislators launched a invoice to ban gross sales of state lands to international governments, state enterprises and any firm primarily based in China, Russia or Saudi Arabia.

“There’s a notion that water goes to native makes use of,” mentioned Andrew Curley, a professor of geography and the setting on the College of Arizona. “Once you acknowledge it’s going far-off, that the merchandise and advantages of this water are exported abroad, that actually provokes individuals’s consideration.”

International entities and people management roughly 3% of U.S. farmland, in line with the U.S. Division of Agriculture. Canada is the biggest holder — primarily of forestland. Fourteen U.S. states have restrictions on international people or entities proudly owning farmland, however limitations range broadly and no state utterly prohibits it.

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Fondomonte additionally farms in California’s Palo Verde Valley, an space that will get its water from the Colorado River. These operations have attracted much less scrutiny. And it’s not the one international firm that farms within the Southwest. The United Arab Emirates-owned Al Dahra ACX International Inc. grows forage crops in Arizona and California, and is a serious North American exporter of hay.

U.S. farmers themselves export hay and different forage crops to the Center East — primarily to Saudi Arabia. China is the first export marketplace for U.S. hay.

In Arizona, renewed consideration to Fondomonte’s water use is elevating questions in regards to the state’s lack of regulation round pumping groundwater in rural components of the state.

Phoenix, Tucson and different Arizona cities have restrictions on how a lot groundwater they will pump underneath a 1980 state regulation aimed toward defending the state’s aquifers. However in rural areas, little is required of water customers apart from registering wells with the state and utilizing the water for actions, together with farming which are deemed a “useful use.”

“Frankly, I imagine they aren’t doing their jobs,” Mayes mentioned about Arizona’s Division of Water Sources’ oversight of rural areas. The division declined to touch upon the revoked drilling permits or the necessity for extra groundwater regulation.

Mayes, together with hydrologists and environmental advocates, says extra research are wanted of groundwater basins in rural areas — equivalent to La Paz County, an agricultural county of about 16,000 individuals. Presently, Arizona doesn’t measure how a lot groundwater customers pump in such areas, which implies there’s little understanding of how a lot water an operation like Fondomonte — or different farms — makes use of.

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Almarai’s holdings within the Southwest are only one instance of the farmland the corporate and its subsidiaries function exterior Saudi Arabia. It farms tens of 1000’s of acres in Argentina, which has additionally confronted extreme drought situations in recent times.

Holly Irwin, a member of the La Paz County Board of Supervisors, has lengthy opposed Fondomonte utilizing water within the county. She mentioned she’s fielded complaints from residents for years that it’s getting tougher to pump water in close by wells and has repeatedly requested the state to do one thing about it.

“We have to have some type of regulation so it’s not all simply being pumped out of the bottom,” Irwin mentioned.


The Related Press receives assist from the Walton Household Basis for protection of water and environmental coverage. The AP is solely accountable for all content material. For all of AP’s environmental protection, go to