Foreign-Owned Farms Draining Southwest Aquifers To Feed Cattle Overseas
While the American southwest suffers under a worsening drought conditions, foreign-owned farms have been siphoning water from underground aquifers to grow water-thirsty crops like alfalfa, which ultimately end up overseas in order to feed cattle and other foreign livestock.
“You can’t take water and export it out of the state, there’s laws about that,” Arizona geohydrologist Marvin Glotfelty told CNN. “But you can take ‘virtual’ water and export it; alfalfa, cotton, electricity or anything created in part from the use of water.”
Residents in Arizona’s La Paz County are particularly frustrated at the area’s ‘huge, foreign-owned farms’ which are taking advantage of lax groundwater laws that give agricultural use the upper hand, allowing farms to pump unlimited water underneath property they own or lease.
County supervisor Holly Irwin told CNN that getting the state to take action, or even acknowledge, the state’s dwindling water supply has proven a ‘frustrating’ exercise in futility.
According to Irwin, Middle East agriculture companies “have depleted their [water], that’s why they are here,” adding “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.”
In fact, 80% of Arizona has no laws governing how much water can be drained by corporate megafarms, nor is their any way to track it, according to the report.
“The well guys and I have never seen anything like this before,” said longtime resident of Wenden, Arizona, Gary Saiter, who said a UAE-based company, Al Dahra, had been tapping into an underground reservoir which stores water built up over thousands of years.
[R]ural 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.” -CNN
According to Saiter, water in the town well has been plummeting – with the depth-to-water level dropping from around 100 feet below the surface in the 1950s to around 540 feet in 2022 – far beyond what an average residential well can reach.
The drought-stricken Middle Eastern expansion into the Southwestern US accelerated after a 2018 Saudi Arabian ban on growing water-thirsty crops like alfalfa and hay to feed livestock and cattle, but they have a ‘national pride’ in the Middle East when it comes to their vast dairy operations.
“They have all their cows there and they need feeding. That feedstock comes from abroad,” Eckart Woertz, director of the Germany-based GIGA Institute for Middle East Studies, told CNN.
For example, the Almarai Company, which owns around 10,000 acres of Arizona farmland under subsidiary Fondomonte, is one of the largest Middle Eastern dairy supply companies. It also owns around 3,500 acres in Southern California which uses water from the Colorado River 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.
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. -CNN
“It gives you that sense you’re closer to the source,” said Woertz. “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.”
As outgoing state House member Regina Cobb asked CNN, “Why are we allowing a foreign company to come into Arizona – which is drought-stricken right now – and have a sweetheart deal [on leases], when we are trying to conserve as much water as we can?”
“It boggles my mind.“