Saudi land purchases in California and Arizona gas debate over water rights

Saudi land purchases in California and Arizona fuel debate over water rights

Saudi Arabia’s largest dairy firm will quickly be unable to farm alfalfa in its personal parched nation to feed its 170,000 cows. So it’s turning to an unlikely place to develop the water-chugging crop — the drought-stricken American Southwest.

Almarai Co. purchased land in January that roughly doubled its holdings in California’s Palo Verde Valley, an space that enjoys first dibs on water from the Colorado River. The corporate additionally acquired a big tract close to Vicksburg, Ariz., turning into a strong financial drive in a area that has fewer well-pumping restrictions than different components of the state.

The purchases totaling about 14,000 acres allow the Saudis to reap the benefits of farm-friendly U.S. water legal guidelines. The acquisitions have additionally rekindled debate over whether or not a patchwork of rules and court docket rulings within the West favors farmers too closely, particularly those that develop thirsty, low-profit crops corresponding to alfalfa at a time when cities are urging individuals to take shorter showers, skip automotive washes and tear out grass lawns.

“It flies within the face of financial purpose,” stated John Szczepanski, director of the U.S. Forage Export Council. “You’ve taken on all the threat a farmer has. The one approach you may justify that’s that they’re actually not making an attempt to make a revenue. They’re making an attempt to safe the meals provide.”

For many years, Saudi Arabia tried to develop its personal water-intensive crops for meals relatively than depend on farms overseas. But it surely reversed that coverage about eight years in the past to guard scarce provides.

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To additional preserve water, the nation has adopted bans on chosen crops. This 12 months, the dominion will now not produce wheat. In December, the federal government introduced that the nation will cease rising inexperienced fodder, livestock feed derived from crops like alfalfa, over the subsequent three years.

Almarai already farms worldwide to be sure that climate, transportation issues or different circumstances don’t interrupt provides. The enlargement within the American Southwest was a “pure development” in its effort to diversify provide, stated Jordan Rose, an legal professional for the corporate’s Arizona unit.

“The cows feed a number of occasions a day, they usually should be sure that they’re all the time in a position to fulfill that unwavering demand,” she wrote.

Regardless of the widespread drought circumstances, the U.S. is engaging to water-seeking corporations as a result of it has robust authorized protections for agriculture, though the worth of land is increased than in different places.

“Southern California and Arizona have good water rights. Who is aware of if that may change, however that’s the best way issues are actually,” stated Daniel Putnam, an agronomist at UC Davis.

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Over the past decade, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates emerged as important consumers of American hay as their governments moved to curb water use. Collectively they accounted for 10 p.c of U.S. exports of alfalfa and different grasses final 12 months.

The land purchases sign that Almarai doesn’t simply wish to purchase hay; it desires to develop. And it’s not the one Arab-owned Gulf firm to take that method.

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Al Dahra ACX International Inc., a prime U.S. hay exporter primarily based in Bakersfield is owned by Al Dahra Agriculture Co. of United Arab Emirates. It farms extensively in Southern California and Arizona and, in keeping with its web site, plans so as to add 7,500 acres in the US for alfalfa and different crops. The exporter packages crops grown throughout the West at its two crops in California and one in Washington state.

A lot of the farms that Arab corporations personal worldwide are in creating nations. As an illustration, Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund has holdings in Latin America and Africa.

However a part of the dominion’s long-term meals safety technique means investing in higher-cost international locations with higher political stability, stated John Lawton, proprietor of Agriculture Know-how Co., a farming firm in Saudi Arabia.

In 2014, Almarai paid $47.5 million for greater than 9,800 acres in La Paz County, Ariz., a sparsely populated alfalfa-growing area that’s exempt from extreme restrictions on pumping imposed on Phoenix, Tucson and different massive Arizona cities beneath a 1980 state regulation designed to guard the state’s aquifers.

It later turned to the Palo Verde Valley, the place Southern California settlers staked declare to the Colorado River in 1877, beating Los Angeles and San Diego beneath a Gold Rush-era doctrine known as “first in time, first in proper” that governs the 1,450-mile waterway. The corporate paid $31.5 million for 1,790 acres in January after shopping for about 2,000 acres there final 12 months.

Farmers and water specialists have greeted Almarai with each cheers and jeers.

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Supporters notice that the corporate has embraced water-conservation strategies that few different farmers have adopted. The Arizona Division of Water Assets launched maps that present nicely ranges on Almarai’s property in La Paz County rose lately, and the farm’s footprint has remained about the identical since 2000.

In California, some farmers say Almarai is a well-run firm that has boosted the economic system by rising its personal alfalfa and shopping for extra hay from neighboring farmers. The corporate lately broke floor on a plant in California’s Imperial Valley to bundle hay into ship-ready bales.

Others say the purchases spotlight misguided water insurance policies. La Paz County Supervisor Holly Irwin raises concern that Almarai will deplete wells.

“We’ve acquired them coming, shifting in right here and utilizing our pure assets up. Why isn’t anybody taking note of the bottom we dwell on?” she stated.

Christopher Thornberg, an economist on the College of California at Riverside, known as alfalfa farms a “surprising waste of a useful resource” and recommended California take into account seizing land beneath eminent area.

“Sooner or later in time,” he stated, “now we have to face the truth that the state can’t proceed to prosper beneath the present circumstances.”

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