Outside of Phoenix, in the scorching Arizona desert, sits a farm that Saudi Arabia's largest dairy uses to make hay for cows back home. That dairy company, named Almarai, bought the farm last year and has planted thousands of acres of groundwater-guzzling alfalfa to make that hay. Saudi Arabia can't grow its own hay anymore because those crops drained its own ancient aquifer.
Reporter Nathan Halverson tells NPR's Renee Montagne that Almarai bought about 15 square miles in the Arizona desert. "They got about 15 water wells when they purchased the property. Now, each one of those wells can pump about 1.5 billion gallons of water. It's an incredible amount of water they're going to be drawing up from that aquifer underground," Halverson says.
The remarkable thing about Saudi Arabia's story is that it'd done something similar in the desert until the water ran out. The aquifers essentially went dry. Ancient springs that were mentioned in the Bible began drying up, and the Saudi Arabian government told its dairy companies to start importing their hay and their wheat from other parts of the world.
It turns out that hay yields in the desert are the best in the United States. You can literally get three or four times as much hay growing in the desert because you have a very long growing season: It's hot, so the hay dries really quickly once you cut it. But the rub here is that you need ... lots of water. The temperatures are so high that it takes a lot more water to keep that barren soil moist for the alfalfa to grow.It turns out that there is nothing currently illegal about this. But it raises important questions about policy when private landowners--no matter where they are from--are using up the underground aquifers that are essentially a public good. This is a classic tragedy of the commons, and my view is that it needs to addressed quickly--the on-air story (not the written version) indicates that a Saudi firm is about to buy land in Imperial County here in California, just to the east of San Diego, to grow alfalfa for export back to Saudi Arabian dairy farmers. Trust me, we need whatever water is out there as much as do the Saudis.