Arizona county aims to protect water as foreign firms arrive

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

Leaders of a rural Arizona county want help from the governor and other state officials to protect their water supply as companies from the Middle East move to the state to grow alfalfa they intend to ship overseas to feed their cattle.

Companies from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have bought thousands of acres of land in the Arizona desert for large-scale farm operations.

China-based companies have done the same in other parts of the West. Some of the companies are moving to the U.S. and elsewhere after running low on water in the Middle East.

La Paz County leaders are upset about the trend, saying the companies are exploiting Arizona's groundwater law in a time of drought that allows farms to pump as much water as they want. County leaders are worried about the future water supply and believe the companies should pay more in property taxes and fees based on water depletion.

"We just want to make sure the people who have lived here, who have invested in La Paz County will not run out of water," said county Supervisor Holly Irwin.

The farming operations have also brought attention to the quirks of Arizona's 1980s groundwater law. The state's major population areas like Phoenix and Tucson have limits on how much water can be taken from the ground, but rural counties largely are without restrictions.

Water users there must do little more than register the wells with the state and put the water to beneficial use, which includes farming.

As a result, Scottsdale, Tucson and Phoenix have bought land in La Paz County in hopes of harvesting groundwater and sending it back to their communities through a canal system, county officials said.

That land can be worth millions — in part because of the water below. The city of Phoenix sold 13,000 acres in La Paz to a U.S.-based farming corporation for $30 million in recent years, county officials said.

Almarai, a Saudi Arabia-based dairy company, has been farming alfalfa in Arizona under a subsidiary, Fondomonte Arizona LLC. The company bought nearly 10,000 acres in Vicksburg last year for $47.5 million to preserve water resources in Saudi Arabia.

Fondomonte legal counsel Jordan Rose said the company is skilled at farming in arid environments and uses a drip irrigation system that allows crops to grow with less water than a typical alfalfa farm. Alfalfa typically requires large amounts of water.

Down the road, a company called Al Dahra Farms USA with ties to the United Arab Emirates operates another large-scale farm, Irwin said. Neither Al Dahra nor the International Farming Corporation — the company that bought the land from Phoenix — responded to requests for comment Friday.

La Paz is one of Arizona's least populated counties, with about 20,000 residents spread across 4,500 square miles in the western part of the state. Less than 6 percent of the county is privately owned, with large swaths of it federal land, county officials said.

Residents in La Paz County could seek to have the groundwater regulated, including by asking state lawmakers to impose a tax on water use and petitioning the Arizona Department of Water Resources to carve out areas for groundwater management.

Department spokeswoman Michelle Moreno said county officials have not inquired about the water basin that includes the Fondomonte farm but have asked for a hydrological study of an adjacent water basin. The department had concluded that the water demands of the county could be met for 100 years. The farms aren't required to report water usage to the state.

"People are concerned about the water embedded in crops, obviously," said department Director Tom Buschatzke. "However, our viewpoint is that there is an economic value in growing of crops. Those folks have as much right as any other individual in the state of Arizona to grow their produce, grow their crops, sell them, export them."

Gov. Doug Ducey's office did not return calls seeking comment.

The Arizona Legislature has not made any major changes to groundwater laws since 1980. Ducey's office recently announced an initiative building on a plan to look at the demands for water and challenges, starting in rural areas, over the next five years. Groundwater modeling is one of the things recommended in the plan, said Moreno.

Irwin said the county welcomes farms and the jobs they bring to the county that struggles without a large tax base. She said the county should have the right to protect its groundwater supplies.

"Back when the laws were made, they probably didn't think of this problem," she said. "Of course now water became a huge issue. They're talking about droughts all over."