Arizona to End Water Leases to Saudi-Owned Alfalfa Farm

An Arizona farm owned by a Saudi Arabian company that grows alfalfa for export is set to lose its access to state land in a move Gov. Katie Hobbs said would “protect Arizona’s water future.”

The farm, in Butler Valley in western Arizona, has been mired in controversy over its pumping of unlimited amounts of groundwater, free of charge, to irrigate its water-thirsty alfalfa crop. The company then ships the alfalfa to Saudi Arabia, where the crop is fed to dairy cows.

Arizona is moving to immediately terminate one lease held by Saudi-owned Fondomonte Arizona, which operates the farm, and will not renew three other leases that are set to expire in February, Governor Hobbs said in a statement this week.

The action by Arizona is the latest sign of a worsening groundwater crisis affecting farmers and communities nationwide. A recent New York Times investigation found that America is depleting its reserves of groundwater at a dangerous rate. The majority of the nation’s drinking-water systems rely on groundwater, as do many farms, particularly in the West.

Arizona, in particular, has seen an explosion of wells, which are getting deeper as users chase falling water levels downward. The state, home to some of the country’s fastest growing communities, said in June that it would stop granting permission to housing projects in the Phoenix area that rely on groundwater.

Alfalfa, grown year-round in Arizona, is a particularly thirsty crop that relies on irrigation. It is mainly used to feed dairy cows and other livestock, which has increasingly made milk and meat products a burden on the nation’s water supply.

Saudi Arabia banned growing alfalfa and other green fodder crops within its own borders in 2018 in a bid to relieve pressure on the kingdom’s water resources.

Arizona’s decision to cancel the Fondomonte leases was triggered by violations by the company, including longstanding equipment problems confirmed during a state inspection earlier this year, the governor said. But the underlying concerns have gone beyond technical violations in a state contending with worsening drought and water scarcity, driven by decades of over-pumping, as well as climate change.

Fondomonte did not immediately return a request for comment.

Fondomonte’s leases, which covered more than 3,000 acres west of Phoenix, had given the Saudi firm license to pump the region’s dwindling groundwater for free. Governor Hobbs had been under pressure to curtail that access.

“It’s unacceptable that Fondomonte has continued to pump unchecked amounts of groundwater out of our state while in clear default on their lease,” Governor Hobbs said. She said she was determined to do “everything in my power to protect Arizona’s water so we can continue to sustainably grow for generations to come.”

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