La Paz County at odds with Saudi Arabian farm

Highly populated cities in Arizona have limits on how much water can be used from the ground. But rural counties typically do not have any restrictions.

- Highly populated cities in Arizona have limits on how much water can be used from the ground. But rural counties typically do not have any restrictions.

It's causing major concerns in La Paz County where county leaders say farm companies from the middle east have moved to the area to grow alfalfa that is shipped overseas.

With no restriction on how much water they use, problems are starting to arise.

"They're coming over here, buying land over here and using our natural resources, and we get nothing. Like I've said before, we don't get oil for free, how come we're allowing water to just be depleted for nothing," said Holly Irwin.

In the small county of La Paz, population 20,000 the wells are running dry. That's according to County Supervisor Holly Irwin.

"They're coming over here, buying land over here and using our natural resources, and we get nothing. Like I've said before, we don't get oil for free, how come we're allowing water to just be depleted for nothing," she said.

Irwin says water issues in the county began surfacing after a Saudi Arabia-based dairy company Fondomonte Arizona bought nearly 10,000 acres in Vicksburg in 2014. The reason she says is to preserve water resources in their country.

The company grows alfalfa which is a water-intensive crop, all of it is being shipped overseas to feed their cattle.

"There is no restriction, they can just keep pumping and pumping and pumping until it's all gone," said Irwin.

The land was purchased for 47.5 million dollars, a cheap price to pay she says considering there is no cost for the water being pumped from the wells or restrictions on how much they use.

"They are paying for the value, and the value is the water, and we need the mechanism to allow us to tax from that amount of money. If we were allowed to do that we would be able to possibly be able to set up some sort of fund to help these people that are having a hard time," said Irwin.

Jordon Rose with the Rose Law Firm represents the farm and says the company has actually decreased the amount of water being used from previous land owners.

"They're used to growing alfalfa in arid climates, they grow alfalfa in Saudi Arabia and in order to make sure that it's sustainable, they want to be here forever, so to make sure it's sustainable they have to use and adopt the latest and greatest technology to conserve as much water as possible," said Jordon Rose.

That statement is being backed up by the Arizona Department of Water Resources. Officials sent a graph that shows water levels have actually risen slightly in the last two years. They also provided Google Earth images of the area from 2006, and now, they say it shows the footprint of the farm hasn't changed significantly sine the purchase.

"They're employing 140, residents of Arizona, or some Californians, and they have 600 indirect jobs from all of their activity," said Rose.

Irwin says she welcomes all farms and the added jobs they bring to the county but says regulations need to be put in place. She is now looking to state lawmakers and the ADWR for help.

"We need to be able to protect our water; we need to be able to protect the families that have been here, their kids, their kid's kids, the businesses that want to come here and develop. We want to assure people that we have enough water here. Just to be able to as a free for all, there has to be a shut-off valve at some point, and that's what we're looking for, and I think it's a win-win for everybody," said Irwin.

The ADWR is now working with people in the county. So far they have had one public comment meeting, and a second meeting is in the works. They also hope to have updated hydrology reports in the near future.


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