Take a look at the news. Hurricane Florence is bringing devastating flooding to the U.S. mainland. People are losing their homes, businesses, cars – everything, and the waters keep rising. There are no estimates on when it will let up.
It’s hard to realize that while that is going on, there are parts of this country that are losing their water and in fact, face the very real prospect they will end up with no water at all.
People are furious at what is happening and part of the fury is directed at Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia? Yes, Saudi Arabia.
I was at a city council meeting in Willcox, Arizona recently, and after the meeting talked with some locals. One woman was beside herself, telling me that Saudi Arabia is “stealing their water. “She was furious.
I asked what she meant.
She said the Saudis have bought and leased thousands of acres of land in their area, raise alfalfa on it, and ship the crops back home to feed their cattle.
The problem is that back home in the Middle East, there was no water-use regulation. Decades of over-pumping eventually dried up their aquifers, which essentially killed their agricultural production and eliminated the source of food for livestock.
They solved that by heading to Arizona, where there has been little if any regulation of water usage, land was available, the price was right and there was plenty of water.
It’s interesting to note there is fury right now in parts of France, particularly in the Loire Valley, over a similar issue. In that case, the culprit is China, which is raising crops in France and shipping them home. The result in France is land prices have skyrocketed and small farmers are being put out of business.
Saying that the Saudi’s are “stealing water” is pretty accurate, since their farming is using thousands of gallons of water that is not being replaced because of the drought. The result is neighboring homes, farms and ranches are finding their wells running dry – and there is nothing that can be done about it.
The historic cattle town of Willcox is in the southeastern corner of Arizona, the Sulphur Springs Valley. It’s an aquifer that historically has trapped decades of rainwater and snow runoff. It provided the source of water for farms and ranches with no one worrying it would end. In fact, there was little if any regulation about water use – just drill a well for your property and life went on.
That’s changed now, as politicians in Phoenix are finally paying attention to the friction that’s present. People are angry and want something done. But while there is an awareness of the issue, little if anything has been done to correct it.
The unrest has spread to neighboring communities in the area, all of which depended on the aquifer and are now dealing with dry wells.
In the meantime, in addition to foreigners using cropland, there has been an increase in the use of land for nut trees, which use huge amounts of water, as well as tomato and corn farms and acres of vineyards. Ag companies from around the country have moved in to take advantage of the plentiful water.
As agricultural use grew, there were changes in the depth of wells being drilled to supply the needed water; in some cases, wells 1,000 to 2,000 feet deep.
It turned out this has become the local farmer against industrial farming. I saw one report in the New York Times that one out- of-state conglomerate bought or drilled 293 wells, often pumping more than 2,000 gallons a minute.
Crops like alfalfa and nuts use about 2,000 gallons (a tanker truck full) every minute, 24 hours a day. One farm pumped 22 billion gallons in one year, nearly double the volume of bottled water sold in this country annually.
Keep in mind through all of this, I’m not talking about rainwater, although that’s part of it. I’m talking about groundwater, the huge aquifers underground that store billions of gallons of water but which are being sucked dry across the world. Keep in mind the Sahara Desert used to be lush and green. Saudi Arabia now has emptied its aquifer; and now, it appears, it’s our turn. Wells are running dry, leaving towns and cities with no water to provide for their customers. Farms without water for their crops and animals mean shortages in food supplies for consumers, resulting in increased prices.
Along with the depletion of the aquifers, the continued two-decade drought is causing water levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell to drop. The Colorado River Basin supplies water to more than 40-million people, as well as thousands of square miles of farmland. It will also affect the Glen Canyon hydropower generation.
According to the Bureau of Reclamation, if the surface of Lake Mead drops below 1,075 feet above sea level, water deliveries will be cut according to agreements – international treaties, court rulings and interstate agreements.
Who depends on that water? Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Native American reservations and northwestern Mexico.
In a water shortage, the first to see their shares reduced: Mexico, Nevada and Arizona.
Keep an eye on it.