RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne at member station KJZZ in Phoenix, Ariz., where about 90 miles from here a curious scene from a recent story caught our ear.
NATHAN HALVERSON: I see white sands with some scrubby bushes in the desert. And I don't know - like, what is it, like, 115 degrees right now? It is sweltering hot.
IKE SRISKANDARAJAH: And just beyond that scrub grass is a gigantic hayfield. And just beyond that are rows and rows and rows of processed golden stacks of hay - like, an entire city of hay. How does this make sense?
MONTAGNE: As it turns out, that city of hay in a scorching Arizona desert actually is headed to a country half a world away - Saudi Arabia. Those voices are reporter Nathan Halverson and producer Ike Sriskandarajah of the Center for Investigative Reporting. In this state enduring a severe drought, this farm was bought last year by a Saudi dairy company to produce hay for cows back home. And that company, Almarai, has planted thousands of acres of water guzzling alfalfa to make that hay. Here's Nathan Halverson.
HALVERSON: Almarai is the largest dairy operator in the Middle East. In fact, they call themselves the largest integrated dairy in the world - meaning they own everything from the hayfields to the cows to the cheese processing plants to the delivery trucks that brings it to the supermarkets.
MONTAGNE: Now, Saudi Arabia can't grow its own hay - although it did for about a generation - because those crops drained its own ancient aquifer.
HALVERSON: Exactly. And that's really why I focused on this Saudi Arabia hay farm. But the remarkable thing about Saudi Arabia's story is that it had done something similar in the desert until the water ran out, which it did. 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.
MONTAGNE: It's interesting that Almarai purchased land in another desert in Arizona.
HALVERSON: (Laughter) yeah. I mean, I grew up in Minnesota, so I've seen a lot of hay grown. I just never really thought, well, people are growing hay in the desert. But it turns out that hay yields in the desert are the best in the United States, that 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 quick once you cut it. But the rub here is that you need water, lots of water, because the temperatures are so high that it takes a lot more water to keep that barren soil moist for the alfalfa to grow.
MONTAGNE: And how much water are we talking about here?
HALVERSON: Well, this is one of the incredible things, too, is that they bought about 15 square miles in the desert. They got 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.
MONTAGNE: So in effect, the Saudis are exporting huge amounts of water to Saudi Arabia in the form of alfalfa hay. Are there no regulations in the state of Arizona that would control that?
HALVERSON: No, there are not. And the laws were really put in place in this '70s. And kudos to Arizona. They were one of the first states to put in groundwater laws. But the laws were designed for, really, 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.
MONTAGNE: As it turns out, not far from it is yet another company - this one from the United Arab Emirates - doing something very similar.
HALVERSON: Yeah. I mean, we had gone out to the desert to look at Almarai. We had found them in this, you know, 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 from a company from the United Arab Emirates, Al Dahra. And we realized that another company has come out here and essentially replicated the exact same thing. They are growing hay, they're using the groundwater and they are shipping it overseas. In this case, we were told to China.
MONTAGNE: Some of the farmers that you interviewed in that town, they didn't seem to be too concerned.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Whoever they could sell it to - I mean, they're welcome to sell it to whoever they want.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: No, it wouldn't make any difference to me, this going to Saudi Arabia. That'd be fine.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: No and no (laughter). It don't bother me none. They've got to make money. And that out there to make money, that what they're for.
HALVERSON: Right, no one that 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.
MONTAGNE: So those two thoughts seem to contradict each other. The water's in trouble, but it's OK to be pumping it massively. Has it jus not clicked somehow because so far they're getting what they need?
HALVERSON: 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 paramount need for them is access to water. Without it, there is no living in the desert.
MONTAGNE: Nathan Halverson is a reporter for "Reveal," a radio program from the Center for Investigative Reporting. And there is, by the way, a postscript to this story. The dairy company Almarai has now got its eye on California and its water.
HALVERSON: Yeah, not only did they announce their intentions to go into California, they now are actually in California down in Imperial County east of San Diego, another, essentially, desert where they are growing alfalfa and shipping it back to Saudi Arabia.
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