Arizona groundwater that is unregulated by the state is being extracted for growing alfalfa crops that will go to feed dairy cows in Saudi Arabia. Does it matter that the water is essentially leaving the country or that the water is being extracted for alfalfa crops in the first place?
Arizona groundwater is a precious resource that is unregulated and overused, especially for growing crops. The farmers growing the crop on state-owned land with the highest water use of all, alfalfa, are causing trouble for people in La Paz County, west of Phoenix, because the alfalfa is being shipped to Saudi Arabia to be fed to dairy cattle there.
Some in Arizona are calling it a “water grab” and the current state attorney general centered their campaign on it. The sting of that particular water use is especially painful as the state faces Colorado River water cuts due to low flows and the likelihood that construction of as many of 800,000 new houses west of Phoenix will be halted due to lack of a secure water source.
As Noah Gordon points out in his TNR article, the situation is a shining example of how virtual water flows that move water across the country and across the world come with costs to the food-water-energy nexus, especially when the nexus is thrown out of balance by climate change impacts like intensified and extended droughts.
Is the question really about why we’re sending Arizona groundwater to Saudi Arabia by way of alfalfa or, is it why are we growing alfalfa - one of the highest water using crops of all - in a desert that is also facing a decades-long drought? Arizonans don’t like to be regulated, but water managers there really ought to start asking themselves a tougher set of questions.