Column: How alfalfa, cows and a Saudi-owned farming operation became villains of Western water woes


People don’t eat much alfalfa, at least not directly.

But the crop widely grown throughout California and the West to feed cows across the world has become central to discussions about managing a future with limited water.

That’s part of the larger debate over what’s being grown and where it goes, and even what people should eat to ease pressure on the water supply and fight climate change.

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There’s some foreign intrigue about water-intensive crops like alfalfa going overseas to places like China, Japan and the Middle East. In Arizona, an apparent sweetheart land deal with cheap water that benefits a Saudi-owned farming operation is drawing increasing scrutiny.

But before making foreigners scapegoats for Western water woes, it’s important to remember that much of U.S. agriculture has long cultivated a worldwide market. That’s not going to change, nor should it, for economic and global food-security reasons. Further, climate change and ignoring the reality of less water for too long are bigger culprits.

For all the admonitions about restricting lawn watering and showers — and they are important — the way to survive, grow and prosper in a water-challenged future in large part will depend on changes in irrigated agriculture.

That’s already starting to happen, along with development of new water sources through recycling, desalination and stormwater capture.

Much of this is controversial, none of it is cheap and more of it will be needed.

Engineering and technology brought water to much of the West, even if some of those generations-old methods seem antiquated today. Technology and revised thinking about how to manage water can avoid a grim water future — though that’s by no means guaranteed.

The region is in the midst of what experts say is the driest stretch in more than 1,000 years. Despite a remarkable conservation ethic among Californians — San Diego County reduced water consumption by more than 40 percent per person over the past 30 years, for example — Western states have been reluctant to take bolder actions to reduce reliance on the stressed Colorado River.

It’s a rare report on the state of water that doesn’t at least mention that California agriculture uses about 80 percent of the state’s water, with the remaining going toward residential, commercial and public uses.

A five-minute video by the Vox news organization gives a fascinating breakdown of water consumption across the Western states, based on estimates by a team of experts.

Residential homes (indoors and outdoors) “use only 6 percent of water consumption,” according to the video. Commercial and industrial use accounts for 8 percent.

The other 86 percent is used to grow crops.

Of those, alfalfa uses the most water. Alfalfa, grass hay and corn silage — all used to feed dairy cows and beef cattle — combine for 32 percent of Western water usage, according to Vox.

That’s more than double the residential and commercial/industrial water take.

Americans eat far more beef than the global average. And while consumption of milk has been on the decline, USDA data shows overall American dairy consumption per capita across products has been on the rise annually for the past 15 years, according to

There are efforts to reduce consumption of both, which would mean fewer cows and reduced greenhouse gas emissions from them. While alternatives to beef and dairy milk are now mainstream, it’s a tough bet that changing diets will alleviate water shortages. But there are increasing discussions about growing high-water crops, including almonds, somewhere other than in the arid West.

Effecting any such change is complicated for a lot of reasons, particularly long-held agricultural water rights. Paying farmers to fallow land, permanently or on a rotating basis, and sending the water to urban areas is an increasing trend.

The Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District signed a land-fallowing deal with the Palo Verde Irrigation District in 2005.

Two decades ago, the San Diego County Water Authority entered into a historic agreement with the Imperial Irrigation District that temporarily included some fallowing. But the water that is saved and sent to San Diego mostly comes from squeezing out efficiencies through improved canals and technology.

The fallowing agreements come with risk if not structured properly. While farm owners can benefit, local communities can be hurt by the economic impact on suppliers (seed, fertilizer, equipment, etc.) and farm workers.

Still, some see fallowing as one of several possible long-term fixes, along with wastewater recycling, desalination and modernizing the state’s plumbing system. It’s also one of the more immediate moves that can be made to deal with the shrinking Colorado River supply, which has been overdrawn by states for decades.

“When you look at water use on the river, the short-term savings has to come out of agriculture,” Blythe farmer Bart Fisher told Vox. “There’s no other place to get it.”

Some Arizonans no doubt would like to see that happen on land farmed by private companies that get water at little cost, including a large Saudi Arabian dairy company, Almarai.

The Arizona Republic published a report showing that the Arizona State Land Department has been leasing 3,500 acres of public land and the water that comes with it to Almarai for what appears to be a low price. The farm operation grows alfalfa, which is shipped out for dairy cows in Saudi Arabia.

With groundwater being depleted, particularly by industrial farms, there are growing calls for investigations of the Almarai deal.

Yet most of the big corporate farms in Arizona are U.S.-owned, according to Natalie Koch, a Syracuse University professor and author of the book “Arid Empire: The entangled fates of Arizona and Arabia.”

Koch said in a New York Times column that Arizona should put a stop to Almarai’s “shady deal,” but stressed that what the state really needs to do is reform its lax groundwater laws.

There’s some irony in what at least one politician has called the “Saudi water grab.”

In the 1940s, the U.S. State Department sent Arizona farmers to Saudi Arabia and coordinated two Saudi royal visits to Arizona to tout the state’s desert agriculture, according to Koch.

“The unsustainable alfalfa and dairy enterprise that Saudi Arabia set up in the wake of these visits drained the kingdom’s groundwater, sowing the seeds for Saudi companies to look to Arizona for cheap water,” Koch wrote.

In many respects, this was a problem made in the USA.

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