Squeezing Waste from Western Water

December 5, 2022

“Sit, be still, and listen, because you’re drunk and we’re at the edge of the roof.”

― Rumi

Salt Lake Tribune (Utah):

It is not that alfalfa is evil.

As cultivated crops go, alfalfa rests fairly lightly on the land. You can get several cuttings of hay each growing season, and alfalfa can go five to 10 years between plantings. That amounts to a huge savings of fuel, reduced carbon emissions and an unusually deep root system that helps cut down on erosion.

Unlike many other crops, such as corn and wheat, alfalfa puts nitrogen into the soil, rather than taking it out. That means farmers can rotate crops and use a lot less fertilizer, reducing the chemical runoff that can be a hazard to surrounding territory and water. It grows well at high altitudes, better than almost anything else Utah farmers could produce.


Even with all that going for it, alfalfa has become a greater liability to the overall Utah economy and environment than it is worth. As a state, we are going to have to find a way to fairly wean our neighbors who grow alfalfa away from that crop.

Alfalfa, for all its benefits, sucks up way too much of the one thing Utah does not have enough of. Water.

Recent reports conclude that growing alfalfa and other kinds of hay sucks up 68% of the 5.1 million acre-feet of water diverted every year in Utah. The resulting crop, though it supports some farmers and their communities, amounts to 0.2% of the state’s annual gross domestic product. That’s about what amusement parks generate across the state.

And it’s not as if alfalfa is something Utah consumers really need. It mostly goes to feed livestock of all kinds. Almost a third of it is exported, mostly to China, taking far too much of our water with it.

As far as the nation’s and the state’s need for livestock feed, the 2.2 million tons of alfalfa Utah produced in 2021 amounted to 1.8% of the nation’s total output.

Meanwhile, the Great Salt Lake is drying up before our eyes and has reached record lows. Millions of migrating birds are threatened, as well as the $1.8 billion in annual economic activity from such things as brine shrimp harvesting and mining operations.

Worse, the situation poses a serious environmental threat to the Wasatch Front. The increasingly parched lakebed will be exposed to the wind and blow generations of toxic waste that have settled there into our already overly put-upon air and lungs.

The simple fact is that agriculture – with the possible exception of some boutique products such as cherries, peaches and dairy – is just not the future of Utah. With a booming population and drought conditions that must be considered the new normal, growing crops and livestock is moving to the margins of our economy, not because of the heavy hand of government but due solely to the invisible hand of the marketplace.

One way to be honest about that would be to set the price of water, for farmers as well as industrial and domestic use, at something closer to what it is really worth. The Utah Legislature made a mistake when it recently shunted aside (”for more study”) a bill from state Sen. Dan McCay that would have ended the practice of subsidizing water costs by hiding them in property tax rates rather than charge by the amount of water used.

Arizona Public Broadcasting:

Arizona is leasing farmland to a Saudi water company, straining aquifers, and threatening future water supply in Phoenix. Fondomonte, a Saudi company, exports the alfalfa to feed its cows in the Middle East. The country has practically exhausted its own underground aquifers there. In Arizona, Fondomonte can pump as much water as it wants at no cost. 

Groundwater is unregulated in most rural areas of the state. Fondomonte pays only $25 per acre annually. The State Land Department says the market rate is $50 dollars per acre and it provides a 50% discount because it doesn’t pay for improvements. But the $25 per acre price is about one-sixth of the market price for unimproved farmland with flood irrigation today, according to Charlie Havranek, a Realtor at Southwest Land Associates. 

Although there are no records for how much Fondomonte is pumping out of the aquifer, a State Land Department report estimates the company is swallowing as much as 18,000 acre-feet every year – enough water to supply 54,000 single-family homes.

Using the average rate at which groundwater on state trust land is auctioned – as the report suggests — the value of the water Fondomonte uses could be anywhere from $3 million to $3.9 million a year.

One of the things being grow on the farmland is alfalfa, which is being sent back to Saudi Arabia to feed their cows. However, alfalfa can be very water intensive which is being supplied by the ground water coming from Western Arizona. 

“It’s one of the most water intensive crops there are and just with the conditions out there, they’re able to do eight to nine cuts, harvests a year of alfalfa.” 

A side note to why is because Saudi Arabia has exhausted a lot of their ground water supply. A lot of companies in Saudi Arabia have been searching around the world for a location to get their water from, which one of them is Western Arizona. 

“Absolutely, this ground water that was laid down probably 70 to 80 thousand years ago, that’s almost nonrenewable.” 

As for the leases for the land, both of them were conducted by the State Land Department. One of the farms is located in Vicksburg and the other is in Butler Valley. 

“They pay about 86 thousand dollars a year. Some reports show that the water could be worth up to three to four million dollars a year that they are putting on the field every year” O’Dell went onto say this about Phoenix and their water supply “because that could be a potential water supply for Phoenix.”

Plot twist:

The Intercept:

AN OFFICIAL RECENTLY elected to the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, where he holds sway over an ongoing water dispute, was also a lobbyist for a Saudi company looking to protect its extraction of precious groundwater. Thomas Galvin, elected in the midterms to the post he was first appointed to in 2021, lobbied on behalf of the Saudi-owned farming company, which is using Arizona’s most depleted natural resource for foreign exports.

State lobbying disclosures show that Galvin is a partner at Rose Law Group, which lobbied on behalf of a subsidiary of the Saudi corporation Almarai currently tapping U.S. groundwater in drought-stricken Arizona and California to grow alfalfa. The animal feed, which is grown in harsh desert environments, is shipped overseas to support livestock on Saudi dairy farms. In 2014, Almarai bought almost 10,000 acres of farmland in Vicksburg, Arizona, through its wholly owned subsidiary Fondomonte, spending nearly $50 million on the purchase. The near-nonexistent water regulations in La Paz County, where Vicksburg is located, mean that Fondomonte can pump vast amounts of water out of Arizona’s water table, which has declined by over 50 feet in the past two decades.


3 Responses to “Squeezing Waste from Western Water”

  1. Gingerbaker Says:

    “it’s not as if alfalfa is something Utah consumers really need. It mostly goes to feed livestock of all kinds.”

    First of all, alfalfa feeds mainly ruminants. Cows and pigs.

    Second – yeah – consumers actually need meat and eggs and milk and bone meal and leather and blood meal, collagen, lecithin, gelatin, glycerol etc. On the order of 500 industrial coproducts.

    Unless you think that militant veganism is the proper business of government. Why in the world would an article about water deny the need for half of our food supply and a goodly chunk of industrial coproducts? Because uninformed anti-meat memes are popular, that’s why.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      I thought grazers just needed to…graze.

      Why should any cattle (much less Saudi cattle) be fed alfalfa grown in an irrigated desert farm?

      • Gingerbaker Says:

        “Why should any cattle (much less Saudi cattle) be fed alfalfa grown in an irrigated desert farm?”

        It shouldn’t – the concept is insane.

        My point, though, was to highlight the way that anti-meat memes are infiltrating normal discourse. Perhaps I am too sensitive to it, but it is rampant.

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