Water Wars: Rising Tensions in Arizona Alfalfa Farms as Foreign Firms Exploit Unregulated Resources

In western Arizona’s McMullen Valley, a vast expanse of vibrant green alfalfa is surrounded by rolling mountains and bathed in the intense desert sun. For over six decades, Matthew Hancock’s family has utilized groundwater to cultivate forage crops in this region, navigating the unpredictable whims of Mother Nature.

However, concerns about the future water supply from the valley’s ancient aquifers, which store groundwater, are emerging in Wenden, a town of approximately 700 people where the Hancock family farms. Some residents report their backyard wells drying up since the Emirati agribusiness Al Dahra started farming alfalfa on about 3,000 acres several years ago.

The exact water consumption of the Al Dahra operation is unknown, but Hancock estimates it requires 15,000 to 16,000 acre-feet annually, based on his own farm’s needs. He expresses worry that future state actions could redirect the groundwater to urban areas amid the severe Western drought.

Amid these concerns, the issue of Earth’s groundwater supplies takes center stage as COP28, the annual United Nations climate summit, commences in Dubai. Gulf countries, including the UAE, face vulnerability to global warming, prompting companies to seek water and land resources in areas like Arizona.

Experts predict inevitable tensions as companies from climate-challenged countries, like the UAE, seek resources in distant locations for livestock forage and crop production. The absence of groundwater pumping regulations makes rural Arizona particularly appealing, attracting international corporations similar to trends seen in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa.

Holly Irwin, La Paz County Supervisor, applauds recent efforts by Arizona officials to regulate groundwater pumping in rural areas. She highlights concerns about dried wells and subsidence, emphasizing the need for measuring and controlling water usage by farms.

Governor Katie Hobbs took action by revoking the state’s land lease for another alfalfa farm operated by Fondomonte Arizona, a subsidiary of Saudi dairy giant Almarai Co. Despite concerns, foreign firms like Al Dahra, which operates on leased land, pose challenges due to limited state control.

Water policy expert Robert Glennon stresses the importance of sensible regulation to prevent aquifer depletion. He draws parallels to advising Saudi Arabia on importing crops instead of draining aquifers and underscores the need to protect Arizona’s groundwater.

Al Dahra, controlled by state-owned firm ADQ, operates globally and emphasizes water and food security in its strategy. However, concerns persist among residents in groundwater-dependent areas like Cochise County.

Kathleen Ferris, a senior research fellow, advocates for legislation granting more control over groundwater usage in unregulated areas. Arizona’s rural resistance to pumping limits remains strong, highlighting the need for comprehensive laws to manage groundwater resources effectively.


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