US Groundwater Is Being Shipped Overseas

How Western states are selling off their aquifers to China and Gulf States.

Alfalfa hay is a water-intensive crop, and exporting it is equivalent to exporting precious groundwater.Jack Richardson

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Water is life. It’s also big business. In our November + December 2023 issue, Mother Jones dives into the West’s deepening water crisis—and the forces behind it, from historic drought to short-sighted policies to corrupt lawmakers and the special interests they serve. Read the full package here.

About a decade ago, having depleted their own ancient aquifers to grow livestock feed, some wealthy Middle Eastern nations, along with China, began tapping into the largely unregulated aquifers of drought-stricken American states. Notably, megafarms in the Arizona desert and in other Western states have been exporting vast quantities of precious groundwater in the form of alfalfa hay.

Even without the exports, unchecked growth and industrial-scale farming across the nation are draining this finite resource more rapidly than it can be replenished. States, meanwhile, are doing an abysmal job of managing it—Arizona, for instance, has even encouraged exports of its groundwater. Here’s a brief timeline of that situation, based on original reporting from Reveal. For a deeper dive, listen to their podcast, “The Great Arizona Water Grab.”

1986: Fast-growing Phoenix buys a 20-acre parcel in arid La Paz County to gain access to its aquifer for potential future use.

2006: Abu Dhabi bans production of alfalfa, a water-intensive crop.

2011: Arizona exports 500 metric tons (MT) of alfalfa, equivalent to the annual water use of up to 3,038 residents.

2012: Arizona’s state pension fund invests $175 million with International Farming Corporation, a North Carolina firm whose business model is to buy up land with water rights in desert states, sink ultra-deep wells, and then lease or sell the land to megafarms. Using some of the pension fund’s $175 million, and with the knowledge of its officials, IFC purchases Phoenix’s acreage and sinks wells on it.

2013: IFC leases the Phoenix parcel and water rights to Al Dahra, an Emirati firm whose 3,000-acre farm in La Paz County exports its alfalfa to the UAE.

2014: Almarai, a Saudi firm, buys nearly 10,000 acres in La Paz County, which gets 5 inches of annual rainfall, for a megafarm whose pumps are capable of pulling up tens of thousands of gallons per minute.

2014: NASA hydrologist Jay Famiglietti urges the US government to regulate groundwater, writing that its depletion will bring “major declines in agricultural productivity and energy production, with the potential for skyrocketing food prices and profound economic and political ramifications.”

2015: Arizona’s alfalfa exports hit 35,900 MT (the production of which consumes as much water as 241,500 state residents); Al Dahra boasts that it’s now America’s No. 1 exporter of feed forage.

2016: Saudi Arabia begins phasing out domestic alfalfa production.

2017: Total alfalfa exports from the United States to Saudi Arabia reach 275,000 MT—a four-fold increase from two years earlier.

2022: Arizona’s alfalfa exports grow to 200,800 MT (consuming adequate water for up to 1.2 million residents). By now, combined alfalfa exports of the Western states represent 20 percent of the total US crop.

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Our team has been on fire lately—publishing sweeping, one-of-a-kind investigations, ambitious, groundbreaking projects, and even releasing “the holy shit documentary of the year.” And that’s on top of protecting free and fair elections and standing up to bullies and BS when others in the media don’t.

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