ARIZONA: State Cancels Water Lease of Saudi-owned Farm

alfalfa in Arizona

PHOENIX, Arizona, October 4, 2023 (ENS) – Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs said Monday that the Arizona State Land Commission is ending leases that for years have given a Saudi-owned farm access to pump groundwater in the arid state.

Hobbs, a Democrat, said in an online post, “Today, I canceled one of Fondomonte’s Butler Valley leases and announced the State will not renew three other leases in February 2024.”

“After inspections I ordered, it became clear that Fondomonte has been operating in default of their lease since 2016. I’m taking action where my predecessor wouldn’t and holding Fondomonte accountable.”

“It’s unacceptable that they have continued to pump unchecked amounts of groundwater out of our state while in clear default on their lease,” the governor said.

“My administration has taken swift action to hold defaulting, high-volume water users accountable. And moving forward, I will continue to do everything in my power to protect Arizona’s water so we can sustainably grow for generations to come.”

Fondomonte Arizona, a subsidiary of the Saudi Arabian dairy corporation Almarai, grows alfalfa in Arizona that feeds cattle in the water-scarce Gulf kingdom.

Fondomonte told the Associated Press that it would appeal the governor’s decision to terminate its 640-acre (259-hectare) lease in Butler Valley.

In total, Fondomonte has farmed about 3,500 acres (1,416 hectares) in the desert west of Phoenix, the state’s capital city.

The violations the governor’s office found concern the company’s storage of hazardous materials, among other problems. On Monday, Hobbs’ office said that Fondomonte was notified of the violations in 2016, but an investigation in August found the company had not fixed the problems, giving the State Land Department grounds to end the lease.

The Arizona governor’s office said the State Land Department, which manages land owned by the state, decided not to renew the three other leases the company has in Butler Valley due to the “excessive amounts of water being pumped from the land – free of charge.”

The Colorado River as it runs through Arizona. (Photo courtesy USGS)

The 4.7 million Phoenix residents get their drinking water from five main sources: the Colorado, Salt and Verde rivers, groundwater and reclaimed water. The vast majority comes from the rivers: the Salt and Verde contribute 52 percent, and the Colorado River 38 percent. Reclaimed water accounts for 8 percent of the city’s water supply, and groundwater the remaining 2 percent.

Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes is pleased with the decision. “I commend Governor Hobbs for taking action against Fondomonte’s default on their Butler Valley lease in Western Arizona, and for deciding to not renew the company’s additional Butler Valley leases. This decision to protect Arizona’s precious groundwater resources and uphold the integrity of our state land trust is a good step in the right direction for the future of Arizona. However, we must take additional steps to urgently protect Arizona’s water resources – especially in rural Arizona.”

The Arizona Attorney General’s Office worked closely with Governor Hobbs’ administration on these inspections, which confirmed what we have suspected – Fondomonte has been in violation of its leases for many years,” Mayes said.

“And while today’s announcement is commendable, it should have been taken by state government much earlier,” she said. “The failure to act sooner underscores the need for greater oversight and accountability in the management of our state’s most vital resource.”

“It has been long evident to Arizonans across our state that these leases never should have been signed in the first place. The decision by the prior administration to allow foreign corporations to stick straws in the ground and pump unlimited amounts of groundwater to export alfalfa is scandalous,” said the attorney general.

Featured image: An alfalfa field in Arizona (Photo courtesy Arizona Farm Bureau)

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