It takes a lot of political bull to protect Saudi Arabian cows.
And for years, that is what happened.
After Saudi cattle ranchers drained most of their own groundwater, they found they could get cheap leases on thousands of acres of Arizona land to grow water-intensive crops for export back to the Middle East for hungry cows to eat.
They could do this because when the state created Arizona’s groundwater law in the 1980s, it put limits on the amount of water that can be siphoned from the ground around major population areas like Phoenix and Tucson.
But rural counties had no restrictions.
Who ate our water? Saudi Arabian cows
Back in 2016, after speaking to people in La Paz County, I wrote a column that began:
“Years from now when the wells run dry and our thirsty children ask what happened to Arizona’s water, you’ll be able to tell them that Saudi Arabian cows ‘ate’ it.
“Along with cattle from the United Arab Emirates.
“Perhaps even China.
“At least that’s what you’ll tell them unless the state officials start paying attention to people like La Paz County Supervisor Holly Irwin.
“’Once it’s gone, our water is gone,’ Irwin told me. ‘We want everyone to live here. We want the farmers to do what they do because they’re important to the local economy. We want the generations of families who have been here to continue to live here. But things have to change or that can’t happen.’”
Fondomonte found friends in high places
The folks siphoning off Arizona’s groundwater had a friend in Republican Gov. Doug Ducey and the GOP-controlled Legislature, however.
After families in La Paz expressed concern about dry wells and diminishing water tables, Ducey’s choice to head the Arizona Department of Water Resources told a reporter, “People are concerned about the water embedded in crops, obviously. 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.”
Why Arizona hasn't cut off: Fondomonte's water use
In June of last year, Arizona Republic reporters Rob O’Dell and Ian James published an exhaustive report on the situation.
They pointed out how a Saudi company, Fondomonte, is renting thousands of acres of land overseen by the Arizona State Land Department for a bargain basement price, and sucking up as much water as they want to grow the alfalfa needed to feed cows in the Middle East.
Not a fix, but it sends the right message
After the 2022 elections, new Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes said she was determined to do something about the leases. So, too, did Gov. Katie Hobbs.
This week, Hobbs acted.
She announced that the Arizona State Land Department had canceled one of its leases to Fondomonte Arizona, and would not renew three others that are set to expire in February.
In a statement Hobbs said, “I’m not afraid to do what my predecessors refused to do — hold people accountable, maximize value for the state land trust, and protect Arizona’s water future. It’s unacceptable that Fondomonte has continued to pump unchecked amounts of groundwater out of our state while in clear default on their lease.”Water is Arizona most precious resource. Period.
Protecting it is a nightmarish political, economic, social and environmental problem that is far too complex for most of us — meaning, essentially, ME — to fully understand.
I do know, however, that canceling the Fondomonte leases will not by itself solve the water crisis. But it sends the right message. It says the state will do everything possible to protect and preserve what we have.
What that means is that, years from now, if the wells run dry anyway and Arizona’s children want to know what happened to our water, at least their parents won’t have to tell them that Saudi Arabian cows “ate” it.
Reach Montini at email@example.com
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona shuts off the spigot to Saudi cows and political bull