Tensions Over Water in AZ 11/28 06:26
WENDEN, Ariz. (AP) -- A blanket of bright green alfalfa spreads across
western Arizona's McMullen Valley, ringed by rolling mountains and warmed by
the hot desert sun.
Matthew Hancock's family has used groundwater to grow forage crops here for
more than six decades. They're long accustomed to caprices of Mother Nature
that can spoil an entire alfalfa cutting with a downpour or generate an
especially big yield with a string of blistering days.
But concerns about future water supplies from the valley's ancient aquifers,
which hold groundwater supplies, are bubbling up in Wenden, a town of around
700 people where the Hancock family farms.
Some neighbors complain their backyard wells have dried up since the Emirati
agribusiness Al Dahra began farming alfalfa here on about 3,000 acres (1,214
hectares) several years ago.
It is unknown how much water the Al Dahra operation uses, but Hancock
estimates it needs 15,000 to 16,000 acre feet a year based on what his own
alfalfa farm needs. He says he gets all the water he needs by drilling down
hundreds of feet. An acre-foot of water is roughly enough to serve two to three
U.S. households annually.
Hancock said he and neighbors with larger farms worry more that in the
future state officials could take control of the groundwater they now use for
agriculture and transfer it to Phoenix and other urban areas amid the worst
Western drought in centuries.
"I worry about the local community farming in Arizona," Hancock said,
standing outside an open-sided barn stacked with hay bales.
Concerns about the Earth's groundwater supplies are front of mind in the
lead-up to COP28, the annual United Nations climate summit opening this week in
the Emirati city of Dubai. Gulf countries like the UAE are especially
vulnerable to global warming, with high temperatures, arid climates, water
scarcity and rising sea levels.
"Water shortages have driven companies to go where the water is," said
Robert Glennon, a water policy and law expert and professor emeritus at the
University of Arizona.
Experts say tensions are inevitable as companies in climate-challenged
countries like the United Arab Emirates increasingly look to faraway places
like Arizona for the water and land to grow forage for livestock and
commodities such as wheat for domestic use and export.
"As the impacts of climate change increase, we expect to see more droughts,"
said Karim Elgendy, a climate change and sustainability specialist at Chatham
House think tank in London. "This means more countries would look for
alternative locations for food production."
Without groundwater pumping regulations, rural Arizona is especially
attractive, said Elgendy, who focuses on the Middle East and North Africa.
International corporations have also turned to Ethiopia and other parts of
Africa to develop enormous farming operations criticized as "land grabbing."
La Paz County Supervisor Holly Irwin welcomes a recent crackdown by Arizona
officials on unfettered groundwater pumping long allowed in rural areas, noting
local concerns about dried up wells and subsidence that's created ground
fissures and flooding during heavy rains.
"You're starting to see the effects of lack of regulation," she said.
"Number one, we don't know how much water we have in these aquifers, and we
don't know how much is being pumped out."
Irwin laments that foreign firms are "mining our natural resource to grow
crops such as alfalfa ... and they're shipping it overseas back to their
country where they've depleted their water source."
Gary Saiter, board chairman and general manager of the Wenden Domestic Water
Improvement District, said utility records showed the surface-to-water depth at
its headquarters was a little over 100 feet (30 meters) in the 1950s, but it's
now about 540 feet (160 meters).
Saiter said that over those years, food crops like cantaloupe have been
replaced with forage like alfalfa, which is water intensive.
"I believe that the legislature in the state needs to step up and actually
put some control, start measuring the water that the farms use," Saiter said.
Gov. Katie Hobbs in October yanked the state's land lease on another La Paz
County alfalfa farm, one operated by Fondomonte Arizona, a subsidiary of Saudi
dairy giant Almarai Co. The Democrat said the state would not renew three other
Fondomonte leases next year, saying the company violated some lease terms.
Fondomonte denied that, and said it will appeal the decision to terminate
its 640-acre (259-hectare) lease in Butler Valley. Arizona has less control
over Al Dahra, which farms on land leased from a private North Carolina-based
Glennon, the Arizona water policy expert, said he worked with a consulting
group that advised Saudi Arabia more than a decade ago to import hay and other
crops rather than drain its aquifers. He said Arizona also must protect its
"I do think we need sensible regulation," said Glennon. "I don't want farms
to go out of business, but I don't want them to drain the aquifers, either."
Seeking crops for domestic use and export, Al Dahra farms wheat and barley
in Romania, operates a flour mill in Bulgaria, and owns milking cows in Serbia.
It runs a rice mill in Pakistan and grows grapes in Namibia and citrus in
Egypt. It serves markets worldwide.
The company is controlled by the state-owned firm ADQ, an Abu Dhabi-based
investment and holding company. Its chairman is the country's powerful,
behind-the-scenes national security adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan,
a brother of ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
The company did not respond to numerous emails and voicemails sent to its
UAE offices and its subsidiary Al Dahra ACX in the U.S. seeking comment about
its Arizona operation.
But on its website, Al Dahra acknowledges the challenges of climate change,
noting "the continuing decrease in cultivable land and diminishing water
resources available for farming." The firm says it considers water and food
security at "the core of its strategy" and uses drip irrigation to optimize
Foreign and out-of-state U.S. farms are not banned from farming in Arizona,
nor from selling their goods worldwide. U.S. farmers commonly export hay and
other forage crops to countries including Saudi Arabia and China.
In Arizona's Cochise County that relies on groundwater, residents worry that
the mega-dairy operated there by Riverview LLP of Minnesota could deplete their
water supplies. The company did not respond to a request for comment about its
"The problem is not who is doing it, but that we are allowing it to be
done," said Kathleen Ferris, a senior research fellow at the Kyl Center for
Water Policy at Arizona State University. "We need to pass laws giving more
control over groundwater uses in these unregulated areas."
A former director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, Ferris
helped draw up the state's 1980 Groundwater Management Act that protects
aquifers in urban areas like Phoenix but not in rural agricultural areas.
Many people mistakenly believe groundwater is a personal property right,
Ferris said, noting that the Arizona Supreme Court has ruled there's only a
property right to water once it has been pumped.
In Arizona, rural resistance to limits on pumping remains strong and efforts
to create rules have gone nowhere in the Legislature. The Arizona Farm Bureau
has pushed back at narratives that portray foreign agribusiness firms like Al
Dahra as groundwater pirates.
The state is "the wild West" when it comes to groundwater, said Kathryn
Sorensen, research director at the Kyl Center. "Whoever has the biggest well
and pumps the most groundwater wins."
"Arizona is blessed to have a very large and productive groundwater," she
added. "But just like an oil field, if you pump it out at a significant rate,
then you deplete the water and it's gone."