By buying land in America’s most productive ground for growing hay, which just happens to be a desert, Saudi Arabia’s largest dairy company now can grow food for its cows back home – all year long. Credit: U.S. Geological Survey/NASA Landsat

Arizonans are debating what actions to take after a Reveal investigation showed the state’s limited aquifers are being drained to grow and ship crops overseas.

Local leaders in La Paz County, where a Saudi dairy company bought 15 square miles of land to grow water-intensive hay for export back to the Middle East, are asking Gov. Doug Ducey and state officials for help, the Associated Press reports:

“We just want to make sure the people who have lived here, who have invested in La Paz County will not run out of water,” said county Supervisor Holly Irwin.

Reveal disclosed that a Saudi dairy company and other corporations were buying large tracts of desert land in an unregulated part of the state, then drilling new groundwater wells, each capable of pumping 1.5 billion gallons of water annually for irrigation.

The report has sparked widespread debate in the arid state and beyond, including a column in the state’s largest paper, The Arizona Republic, by staff opinion writer EJ Montini, who wrote that Reveal’s report caught many in the state by surprise:

We are fast asleep on this issue. Snoring away. Hopefully, we’ll wake up and do something about it before we die of thirst.

And a letter to the editor in The Arizona Republic in which a reader wrote:

Our legislators need to wake up and enact laws that prevent foreign governments from depleting our life’s blood.

The Saudi government has told its domestic dairy companies to import hay from overseas because after three decades of intensively pumping its own desert aquifers, Saudi Arabia’s groundwater supply is nearly depleted.

NPR “Morning Edition” host Renee Montagne summed up the net effect of growing hay in the Arizona desert for export overseas during an interview with Reveal reporter Nathan Halverson:

So in effect, the Saudis are exporting huge amounts of water to Saudi Arabia in the form of alfalfa hay.

The head of the state’s Department of Water Resources, Tom Buschatzke, told the AP that shipping the state’s limited water supply overseas is normal business in Arizona:

“Our viewpoint is that there is an economic value in growing of crops. Those folks have as much right as any other individual in the state of Arizona to grow their produce, grow their crops, sell them, export them.”

The state does not monitor how much water these mega-farms in La Paz County are pumping from underground. Therefore, state officials cannot tell local residents when their only access to water, which comes from these aquifers, will run out. A Vox article, citing the original Reveal article, stated:

Ideally, governments would sponsor research to drill deeper down into the rock layers, take stock of their water supplies, and put withdrawals on a sustainable footing. Because once this non-renewable resource runs out, it can’t be easily replaced.

Nathan Halverson (he/him) is an Emmy Award-winning producer for Reveal, covering business and finance with a current emphasis on the global food system. Before joining Reveal, Halverson worked on projects for FRONTLINE, the Investigative Reporting Program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and PBS NewsHour. He was the principal reporter on Reveal's story about the Chinese government’s involvement in the takeover of America’s largest pork company, Smithfield Foods Inc. He was awarded a 2014 McGraw Fellowship by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, and he received a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Minnesota. He has won a New York Times Chairman’s Award and has received reporting honors from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, California Newspaper Publishers Association, San Francisco Peninsula Press Club and Associated Press News Executives Council. Halverson is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.