Controversy over large-scale water pumping by foreign-owned farms reaches Arizona Capitol

Isaac Windes//March 27, 2017

Controversy over large-scale water pumping by foreign-owned farms reaches Arizona Capitol

Isaac Windes//March 27, 2017


A bill requiring the collection of data, such as the water levels of basins and the number of wells in northwestern Arizona, isn’t going anywhere at the state Capitol, but it’s having an impact anyway.

The legislation brought to the fore a controversy over water use and conservation, laws and regulations favorable to agriculture, and a buying spree of real estate by foreign-owned companies that seek to farm on American soil.

HB2520, which was introduced by Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, would have ordered the Arizona Department of Water Resources to collect data regarding the depth and water levels of basins in the upper Colorado River water planning area, as well the number of wells and types of groundwater users there.

The House Land, Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee rejected the bill by a vote of 3-5 on February 9.

At issue is the planning area that is mostly located in Mohave County and includes portions of Coconino, La Paz and Yavapai counties. The bill’s goal is to determine the resiliency of groundwater in the region, particularly in Mohave and La Paz counties.

Cobb said the bill is necessary to measure the impact of high volume water users in the region.

“What’s happening is we have high volume users of water kind of entrenching themselves into that county because they don’t have any management areas,” Cobb said. “Then they are sending hay out of the country.”

Although Cobb didn’t mention it, one of the high-volume water users in the region is Almarai, Saudi Arabia’s largest dairy company, which grows hay on large swaths of land it has acquired. Fondomonte Farms, based in La Paz County, is a subsidiary of Almarai.

When asked if her bill was a response to foreign interests owning large farms that pump water out of basins in the Southwest, Cobb replied, “Not necessarily. It’s just high volume water users. It’s just how much water are they using.”

She added: “We are the land of the free out there. They can put a straw in and pull as much water as they want, too, and no one’s monitoring or metering or controlling the recharge. Once one farmer came in and started laying straws, the rest followed suit, and these are high volume hay and pecan farmers.”

Almarai has bought land in in La Paz County, an alfalfa growing region, and other parts of the Southwest after Saudi Arabia decided to protect its scarce water supplies. The kingdom has decided it will stop growing livestock feed from crops like alfalfa.

But some La Paz residents decried the purchase, as growing alfalfa is water intensive.

Use of water in active management areas is aggressively managed. But those severe restrictions don’t apply to areas outside of the management areas, which mostly include heavily populated areas of Arizona.

During the hearing on HB2520, Thomas Galvin, an attorney whose firm, Rose Law Group, represents Saudi-based Fondomonte Farms, acknowledged some of the concerns raised, but added that the Department of Water Resources is already working with local residents and supervisors of La Paz County to learn about the issues.

He noted that the U.S. Geological Survey is performing field verification, with data that he said will become available this year.

“I am not sure that this bill is right for this time right now,” Galvin told committee members. “I believe we might be putting the cart in front of the horse.”

What needs to be done, he said, is convene stakeholders, including business interests, local representatives, county supervisors and legislators, to sift through the issues.

“I’m afraid that, if this bill passes, what we’ll be doing is singling out farms and large agricultural users. You might actually be forcing farms to release proprietary data,” Galvin said.

He said he believes ADWR hasn’t asked for the legislation, nor has it raised “alarm bells” regarding the groundwater levels in the region.

He laid out a scenario where one farm could take advantage of data gathered from a competing farm as a result of the bill.

In a follow up email, Galvin questioned the notion that shipping agricultural products out of the country is a bad thing, and insisted that “fringe left-wing groups” are waging an assault on agricultural and farming interests in rural Arizona.

“The whole purpose of agriculture is producing crops in one area of the world and sending them all over the world,” he wrote in the email. “The Arizona agricultural community is a $17 billion industry, and it employs 88,000 people. Arizona has always shipped its products all over the world.”

Galvin said there is no incentive for the agriculture industry to dry up aquifers, and new technologies allow farms to use less water. For example, he said, tractors use GPS, and fields are utilized with laser-leveling.

“Attacking a foreign-owned entity, that’s revealed by this study to be an economic powerhouse for La Paz County, is misguided at best and racist at worst,” Galvin said, referring to a report by Elliott D. Pollack & Company. That study said Fondomonte Farms, which has invested $118.4 million, provides about $277,000 each year in tax revenues, employs 116 workers, making it the seventh largest employer in the county, and supports about 360 jobs in the region.

The impact of Almarai’s water usage was explored in an ASU documentary, “Camels Don’t Fly, Deserts Don’t Bloom.” One scene shows residents discussing the controversy at a town hall meeting.

“The foreign entities that have bought land here and drilled wells are pumping a lot of water out of the valley for a product that’s being shipped out of the country,” one La Paz County resident complained.

Bill Goodman and his wife, who are featured in the documentary, said they had two wells go dry.

They said they’re retired and on a limited income, and what little water they do have is starting to disappear.

Galvin, the lawyer representing Fondomonte, also called into question the credibility and accuracy of the documentary, saying instead that the “documentary film crew used alarmist language to imply that Arabs were stealing water from Arizona.”

He also contended that they targeted the company simply because it was from Saudi Arabia, despite its worldwide presence.

Steven Moss, a Mohave County supervisor, said the bill would require information to be collected that farmers wouldn’t provide themselves.

“Arizona Department of Water Resources asked the farmers for the data,” Moss said. “The farmers didn’t answer them, which makes me suspicious.”

Moss said that the failure of the bill would not prevent the information from being collected, but it would slow down the collection process.

“We are going to partner with the United States Geological Service, and we are going to spend several hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of the next three years to get the same information,” Moss said “It’s just going to slow us down and cost more money.”

Moss said that unregulated wells were outdated going forward.

“In my opinion, there are many of the rural counties that are in unregulated areas, which was fine when Arizona didn’t have six or seven million residents,” Moss said.

“But we are entering into the modern age and the needs of the residential users need to be taken into account. You can’t just let these farmers from California or wherever else they are from destroy communities by sucking all the water out of the ground.”

Kathleen Ferris, senior research fellow at ASU’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, said there have been concerns about increased groundwater pumping and well levels in the Southwest.

“In order to have an understanding about what the ground levels are and how much they are being depleted, you need the data,” she said. “From all the data you can extrapolate what the conditions are in the wells. Because there is no requirement under the state law for wells to be monitored, the data just doesn’t exist.”

Ferris said that some people might take issue with the bill out of worry that it would lead to more regulations.

“People are concerned, especially in rural areas, that if you start to measure and monitor wells it will lead to something more like needing a permit to drill a well or like not being able to expand uses of groundwater,” she said.