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Foreign companies taking US water from drought-stricken Southwest

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (Balkis Press/Abaca Press/TNS)
November 07, 2022

Groundwater in the southwest is being used to grow feed for livestock on the other side of the world, even as U.S. residents in the region struggle through a historic drought.

In one Arizona town, residential wells are running dry as a huge farm owned by a Saudi company pumps water to its alfalfa crops. But those crops will only be shipped to feed cows in the Middle East, where water is also growing scarce, CNN reported.

Water-intensive crops like alfalfa and hay have already been banned in Saudi Arabia as the country runs dry. But sprawling dairy farms are a point of national pride in the Middle East, so those countries are getting their water overseas, according to CNN.

Foreign ownership of U.S. agricultural land has increased by an average of nearly 2.2 million acres a year since 2015. It now totals nearly 3 percent of all privately held agricultural land in the U.S., mostly in the country’s south and west, according to a 2020 U.S. Department of Agriculture report.

While an expert told CNN it’s illegal to export water from Arizona, it can be “virtually” exported by using it in that state and shipping away the produce. That process is legal, but sources questioned its merits as the southwest enters its worst drought in a millennium, as reported by CNN.

“We are literally exporting our economy overseas,” Phoenix water resources management adviser Cynthia Campbell told CNN. “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.”

In one CNN example, a United Arab Emirates-owned alfalfa farm in Arizona is blamed by nearby residents for taking so much water that the ground in some areas is literally sinking. Still, the farm is praised by others as a large employer that donated a pump to irrigate the high school’s fields.

One resident said he’s “kind of ambivalent” about foreign ownership. “You can’t control where people sell stuff, and it’s going to go somewhere,” he said, adding, “I just don’t like the crops they’re growing and the water they’re pumping.”

Kris Mayes, a Democratic candidate for Arizona attorney general, promised to cancel the Saudi company’s leases if elected, after a newspaper investigation found it is improperly leasing the land at a discounted rate. But she also seemed to disagree with the concept of the deal.

“We are essentially giving our water away for free to a Saudi corporation, and that has to come to an end,” Mayes said.