Arizona's water supply, like many states' water supplies, is predominantly used for farming. Arizona, as a state, has been pretty xenophobic over the years. Arizona isn't known for being the most partial to people of color. Like most of these states with Proud to Be an American tattooed across the lips of all their politicians, they are full of shit.
Outside of Phoenix, in the scorching Arizona desert, sits a farm that Saudi Arabia's largest dairy uses to make hay for cows back home.
That dairy company, named Almarai, bought the farm last year and has planted thousands of acres of groundwater-guzzling alfalfa to make that hay. Saudi Arabia can't grow its own hay anymore because those crops drained its own ancient aquifer.
The laws were put in place in the '70s, and kudos to Arizona — they were really one of the first states to put in groundwater laws. But the laws were really designed for local or domestic farming. The idea that another country would come and essentially export your water via crops just wasn't really around 30, 40 years ago. And so the laws that are in place are really inadequate for dealing with this new trend.
This is occurring in a part of Arizona that is unregulated for groundwater. So there are no limits on how much water they can pump.
Arizona is a pretty good place for farming hay. The high temperatures mean a much longer growing season for hay, and of course it also means they need a lot of water. The Saudis know exactly what will happen in Arizona—there's a book about what happened when they did the same thing in their own country.
Saudi Arabia’s mysteriously disappearing water came to light around the turn of the century. By 2002, the government had formed the Ministry of Water to search for answers. But the Sherlock Holmes of this story came from a surprising background.
A Saudi banker turned water detective put together the pieces in 2004 and published the now seminal report “Camels Don’t Fly, Deserts Don’t Bloom.” Elie Elhadj’s investigation revealed the culprit: Wealthy farmers had been allowed to drain the aquifers unchecked for three decades.
Beginning in the late 1970s, Saudi landowners were given free rein to pump the aquifers so that they could transform the desert into irrigated fields. Saudi Arabia soon became one of the world’s premier wheat exporters.