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 land in question had previously been under cultivation for corn, cotton and other crops, including smaller amounts of alfalfa for hay, he tells The Salt. Halverson's sources told him that the farm is now consuming significantly more water, since alfalfa is a particularly thirsty crop.
Halverson, along with producer Ike Sriskandarajah, visited that farm for a story for Reveal, an investigative radio program and podcast from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
(These have been edited for clarity and brevity.)
On importing hay for dairy cows
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.
On regulating the practice of exporting water in the form of alfalfa hay
The laws were put in place in the '70s, and kudos to Arizona — they were really one of the first states to put in groundwater laws. But the laws were really designed for local or domestic farming. The idea that another country would come and essentially export your water via crops just wasn't really around 30, 40 years ago. And so the laws that are in place are really inadequate for dealing with this new trend.
This is occurring in a part of Arizona that is unregulated for groundwater. So there are no limits on how much water they can pump.
On the United Arab Emirates doing something similar nearby
We had gone out to the desert to look at Almarai. We had found them in this cactus-filled valley in the very remote part of Arizona, and as we're driving down the road, all of a sudden we see a sign for a company from United Arab Emirates, Al Dahra, and we realize that another company has come out here and essentially replicated the exact same thing. They are growing hay. They are using the groundwater. And they are shipping it overseas — in this case, we were told, to China.
On reaction from local farmers
No one we talked to has issue with these corporations coming in and wanting to make money. And the fact that it's going to Saudi Arabia or China, the locals simply didn't care. But what they did care about is that their water tables are falling. So their domestic wells that they use for their homes are increasingly dropping, and at some point, they're going to lose access to water.
I think this is a very new issue. I think people are just waking up and recognizing that they are exporting huge amounts of their water overseas, even during a drought. And so I think folks are just reconciling with this issue, and folks are grappling with what it means. But the paramount need for them is access to water. Without it, there is no living in the desert.