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Menopausal Mother Nature

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A Saudi Arabian Dairy Giant in Siphoning Off Arizona’s Groundwater

Many more agricultural operations are drawing down the state’s underground water reserves for free. And most of them are U.S.-owned. Minnesota’s Riverview Dairy company, for example, has a farm near Sunizona, Ariz., that has drained so much of the aquifer that local residents have seen their wells dry up. Meanwhile, some California-based farms, facing tougher groundwater regulations at home, are looking to relocate to neighboring Arizona for cheap water. These companies and other megafarms can afford to drill deep wells, chasing the rapidly sinking water table.

And it’s not just farming operations. Other sectors like mining and the military, which have a huge presence in the state, also benefit from Arizona’s lax water laws. It’s difficult to know how much water is being used up by one of the state’s largest employers, Raytheon Missiles and Defense, which, like Almarai, has a footprint in Arizona and Saudi Arabia. But manufacturing missiles has a water cost, too. And like Fondomonte’s alfalfa, Raytheon’s product is being shipped to Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi farm scandal may have helped to spotlight the severity of Arizona’s water crisis, but the state will have to go further to address the root cause. Arizona needs to apply groundwater pumping regulations across the entire state, not just in its metropolitan areas. It won’t be easy. This year special interest groups scuttled a far more modest effort that would have allowed rural communities to opt in to groundwater enforcement. In all likelihood, when these groups have to pay fair prices for water, they will have to give up on growing water-hungry crops like alfalfa in the desert. This kind of race-to-the-bottom approach to water in Arizona is insupportable today, if it ever was.

Arizona is one of the last places in the United States that should be reckless with its water resources. The state is dependent on the Colorado River, which has been depleted by overuse and climate change and hit extreme lows this year. Water managers from seven states in the river basin failed in August to meet a federal deadline to make dramatic reductions. As a result, the Bureau of Reclamation ordered Arizona to cut its use of water from the river by 21 percent. Arizona’s cities and rural areas alike are at risk if they lose access to Colorado River water only to find their groundwater reserves sucked dry, too.

In August, Kris Mayes, then a candidate for state attorney general, released a 16-point plan to stop what it called the “Saudi water grab.” Ms. Mayes, who narrowly won the November election (though results of an automatic recount are pending), has some good ideas. In her plan, she promised to seek back payment for Almarai’s underpriced water and land usage since 2015, urged support for counties that want to manage their groundwater and said the legislature should update Arizona’s water code to prevent overuse in rural areas. But she failed to clearly state the action that it needed: groundwater regulation across the entire state.

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