Farmer sorting alfalfa in Arizona. Photo courtesy Arizona Farm Board
  • Part I: US exporting water in-country
  • Part II:  Risks from abroad
  • Part III: Immigration/agriculture/gangs/links to poor governance

By Brianna Cunliffe, P.E.N. chief investigative reporter

September, 2020

Part i

The United States will face a full-blown water crisis by the end of the century. In many ways, we are in one already. A recent study confirmed that American West is in the grips of the first human-caused megadrought — our continent has only seen one like it in the past 1,200 years. Thirsty cities and rampant wildfires further deplete water supplies in the arid landscapes of California. Countless Western rivers face existential threats as farms require more and more irrigation to cope with the unpredictable weather and changing rain patterns driven by our climate crisis. The situation is precarious today. The future promises no relief, only resources stretched thinner and less stable. A government study found that in 50 years, less than half of the freshwater basins in the United States will be able to meet monthly demand. 

When thinking of water scarcity, the mind goes halfway across the globe to desert nations at war without infrastructure or democratic governments. But according to the Water Research Institute, New Mexico, which faces the most dire situation of any U.S. state, has a water risk rating of “extremely high,” putting it on par with Eritrea and the United Arab Emirates. 

Farming alfalfa in Arizona. Photo courtesy Arizona Farm Board

Water is honored in nations across the world as the universal giver of life. Access to water is identified by the United Nations as a human right. Clean and plentiful water is vital to thriving and healthy American communities. But even in a nation with a trillion dollar budget, both aspects are far from guaranteed. In Flint, Michigan, and marginalized communities across the nation, crumbling infrastructure and polluting industries turn what’s in our taps to poison. In the Navajo nation, the tap itself runs dry. Especially in the age of COVID-19 these deficits have devastating and lethal consequences. Nearly a quarter of low-income communities have insufficient water to follow basic hand-washing guidelines. 

“Too many Navajos don’t have access to indoor plumbing, forty percent of households lack running water and electricity. It’s inhumane. Often that water is contaminated with uranium, or fracking toxic waste. I know our governor has done everything on New Mexico’s portion of tribal lands to help during the pandemic. But the environmental injustices that have occurred on their lands for decades is unforgivable, it’s racism. It’s unconscionable they don’t have access to clean water,” said New Mexico State Representative Debbie Sariñana, Air Force veteran, EOPA Co-Chair. “We are the wealthiest nation, we must right these wrongs to make our country whole. As a veteran we know sometimes who you think is the weakest link ends up being your strongest.”

With the world’s populations growing, global marketplaces and the worldwide demand for food rise in tandem. This puts pressure on natural resources increasing the need for water, which is always on the rise. Recent studies have found that water is a key driver in global conflicts, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. In the face of ever-rising need, our natural resources are our most precious asset. So why is our lifeblood being snatched out from under our nose? 

Agriculture is by far the biggest user of US water. Animal agriculture takes a disproportionate slice of the pie. A third of all consumed water goes to irrigate crops not for human consumption, but for beef and dairy cattle to feed on. In the Colorado River basin, it’s over 50 percent.

The same regions that lean so heavily on animal agriculture are those facing devastating water shortages. Production of meat and dairy continue to climb and climb, even as rivers shrink. This would be a dilemma enough on its own, grappling with balancing American consumers’ desire for these water-intensive products and responsible use of resources. But there’s another player in the game — one that certainly does not have American interests at heart.

Saudi Arabia is buying up farmland in rural Arizona, and with it, the water rights that come along. Agri-giant company Almarai is purchasing tens of thousands of acres for trivial sums. On these massive tracts of land, they produce massive amounts of alfalfa, shipped back to the Middle East to feed cattle.

It may seem like a harmless exchange of crops. It’s anything but. 

Grown in the naturally arid American West, alfalfa sucks up water at alarming rates. It’s a highly valued crop precisely for that reason, and is the prime feed crop for cattle. Ownership of Arizona’s land also entitles these Saudi companies to the water necessary to grow the massive amounts of alfalfa feeding the nation’s ballooning beef consumption. It’s an indecently good deal for the massive Middle Eastern corporation — and it’s only possible because of the loose regulations specific to these sites in rural Northwestern Arizona and some of California, specifically targeted by companies for that exact reason.

Through this practice, after purchasing the land, Saudi Arabia essentially has free access to the groundwater aquifer beneath the land they purchase. Thus, companies pump up to  2.3 million gallons of water a day under doctrines of “beneficial use.” Each well in a county with a rapidly falling water table bleeds the ground of 100,000 gallons every single day. There are twenty plus wells on one site alone.

Saudi Arabia wants to conserve its own already-decimated water reserves from the water-intensive animal agriculture supply chain. Its royal rulers know, just like our military veterans who are lawmakers do, that water is power and security in the world shaped by the climate crisis. So instead of depleting their aquifers to supply growing appetites for meat, their giant corporations take advantage of loose regulations in regions like rural Northwestern Arizona to deplete America’s.

The complex globalized trade network can obscure a process that is devastatingly simple: American water is being extracted and shipped overseas, for the profit of a nation with an abhorrent human rights record. The United States is exporting its water en masse during a drought — and not making any profit off of it.

“We’re not getting oil for free, so why are we giving our water away for free?” asked La Paz County Board of Supervisors Chairman Holly Irwin, who represents a rural area in western Arizona where food companies affiliated with the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates have come to farm alfalfa for export.

The truth is stark: with the guzzling industrial farms turning on the taps full blast, the surrounding communities are suffering. There is not enough to go around. Local water tables are falling. That is not merely inconvenient — it is an existential threat to agriculture, community, and public health. The direct hit to the pocketbook and peace of mind is heaviest on Arizonans. But this is an issue which undermines the security of our entire nation. 

Cattle farm in Saudi Arabia, courtesy photo

With the reality that countless conflicts each year are driven by water and the likelihood that that trend will only continue as our climate crisis wears on, it is absolutely necessary that the United States take steps to ensure that it can sustain its growing population without relying on imports. Water insecurity is a national security risk. It places the nation at the whim of global powers, creating an unacceptable vulnerability for one of the world’s largest economies and a leader on the world stage.

Citizens deserve water security. A regulatory state that allows not protection of our resources, but exporting them without even a fair profit or transparency as to what transpires? That is the opposite of what every elected official, regardless of party, ought to stand for.  

Arizonans who have relied on the land for generations are being forced to dig new costly wells to survive as their old ones run dry, sucked up by the neighboring industrial productions exporting hamburgers to five star Saudi restaurants. It is nothing short of exploitation. 

“The issue is basic. There are no regulations stopping forgin entities buying up our precious water and land resources. The solution is clear. The United States needs a ban on these practices otherwise we’re simply selling our natural resources to the highest bidder for short term gains in exchange for long term devastation,”said Alex Cornell du Houx, a former Maine state lawmaker, Marine combat veteran, and President of Elected Officials to Protect America.(EOPA). “You can’t refill a depleted water table, the land it nourished turns to sand. That’s what happened to Saudi Arabia. They did it to their own land, now they’re doing it here.”

Code Blue, an offshoot of Elected Officials to Protect America, produced a mini-documentary exposing this insidious practice and highlighting the innovative and courageous farmers, community advocates and lawmakers fighting against it.

“The alfalfa growers working for a Saudi Arabian company, are taking water from neighboring farms. They’ve been forced to diversify to survive. Luckily, some have gotten creative growing hops and brewing local beer, others haven’t been as fortunate,” said Cornell du Houx, a former Maine state lawmaker, Marine combat veteran, and President of EOPA, who directed the documentary. “These are American farmers suffering, American communities seeing their water resources drying solely because of our policy in Washington D.C. Regulations need to be put in place. I consider this a national security threat.”

Our western lands are at a crossroads. The climate crisis is making it ever more difficult for the landscape to satisfy the growing and changing needs of the globe while also avoiding a crisis like the Dust Bowl and over-taxing the landscape. But the situation is far from hopeless.

Yuma County’s alfalfa ready to be shipped overseas 

 American farmers want to keep doing what they love. There are ways to help them do just that and help the planet in the process. Carbon farming has been on the rise in the national consciousness, and for good reason. It has the capacity to dramatically alter the agricultural status quo. Instead of exporting our water to Saudi Arabia, with a few updates patching the lax regulations in these regions, what now is a huge vulnerability could become a massive opportunity. The millions of gallons of water now feeding foreign cows could be used to water essential and innovative crops for home consumption using practices which store more carbon than they release, alleviating US emissions and lessening the climate crisis. 

“We have no right as a nation to sell water rights out from under the very farmers that supply our nation’s food. The lack of regulation in this area is stark and an obvious security threat. Reasonable regulations to protect our agricultural community throughout America must be enacted by Congress,” said Oregon State Representative Major Paul L. Evans USAF (Ret.), EOPA Co-Chair. “First and foremost we must protect and serve the American people, not the whims of autocratic governments. Our water supplies need protection, they’re already threatened by climate change. Other governments have enacted regulations, it’s high time we did.”

Our water supply is finite, precious, and it is in danger. Hope lies in the capacity of Americans to end this cycle of exploitation and insist that our resources be used judiciously, wisely, and in pursuit of a better future — not shipped overseas and sold for a penny.

Graphic : The map above shows drought conditions across the United States as of November 6, 2018. The data come from the U.S. Drought Monitor, a partnership of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.