Saudi Arabia now has plenty of water — but you might not like where it is coming from

The droughts and accompanying wildfires in California have dominated the news, culminating in the November 2018 Camp Fire, California’s deadliest wildfire in history. The droughts and heat have only gotten worse since the 80s, thought to be the result of climate change. Despite a growing problem with shrinking water resources in the state, Saudi Arabia is buying ever-more of Blythe California, a town with access to water from the record-low Colorado River.


The strange reality: Saudi Arabia has contended with its own severe drought problems in the arid desert by buying up land in America, taking advantage of a deal from 1877 made by Thomas Blythe, a British gold rush-era prospector. Saudi Arabia is feeding its cows with alfalfa grown here and exported back to the desert, watered virtually for free from the American river.



Although in Saudi Arabia, the government carefully controls access to precious water, going so far as to outlaw growing alfalfa altogether in 2016, America presently has no such concern about a dwindling resource, one that has become strained due to ever-higher human populations as well as climate change.


The town of Blythe sits just four hours east of Los Angeles. The dry desert there seems like a strange place for an agricultural hub, but thanks to a deal struck by Thomas Blythe and the US government, centuries ago mind you, the town enjoys “unquantified water rights for beneficial use.” High-tech irrigation delivers water from the river into the 94,000 acres of alfalfa-growing farmland.


There, one of the largest food production companies in the world, Almarai, owns a subsidiary, Fondomonte Farms. The Saudi Arabian company has quietly purchased acres of land in the town for years. Now they own 15,000 acres in all or 16 percent of the irrigated valley between Arizona and California. They get all the water they can use from the Palo Verde Irrigation District, paying a low $77 per acre to cover only overhead.


The Colorado River, a lifeline for 40 million people, has recently faced record lows, and the prospects for increasing demand and decreasing supply appear certain. The Denver Post noted in August 2018 that federal water managers may be forced to declare water shortages.


“The Colorado River is so strained amid population growth and a climate shift to hotter, drier conditions that federal water managers may declare an unprecedented ‘shortage’ and cut releases from reservoirs.”

U.S. Bureau of Reclamations spokesman Marlon Duke warned:


“There’s a 52-percent chance we will have to declare a shortage in 2020. … We cannot just sit back and think the river is going to provide all the water we need, especially as our cities continue to grow. It all depends on what Mother Nature sends us next year.”


The Guardian called attention to the problem that America’s high-export states, like California, are effectively shipping their water overseas. Not just to Saudia Arabia, but to may other world markets.


“Alfalfa is the third largest economic product in the US, but only 4% is exported annually. In the western states, however, which are high producers close to shipping ports to major export markets like China, Saudi Arabia and Japan, about 15% is exported each year. These high-export states are also the states that happen to be grappling with drought, meaning that the most water-strapped states are shipping much of their water overseas, in the form of alfalfa.”

As water is shipped overseas in the form of alfalfa and other vegetables, consider that the Colorado River irrigates 15 percent of America’s annual yield of vegetables, nuts, and fruits.


Already, the Palo Verde Irrigation District has implemented a plan to help divert the river’s water back to big cities like San Diego. A “fallowing contract” with Blythe’s farmers restricts planting on a percentage of land. In return for their cooperation, farmers are paid not to plant, something that a Fondomonte employee told the Guardian “drives them mad.”


The community of Blythe has seen a boon thanks to the Saudi company, employing locals and selling their products like powdered milk and cupcakes to specialty grocers across America. However, as California’s water resources are further strained, how can America continue to justify allowing foreign-owned companies to buy up our valuable land and take advantage of our dwindling resources?


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Matthew Silvan

Progressive liberal from the American south. Working to educate and inform on issues like preserving the environment, equality for minorities and women, and improving the quality of life for mankind and our ecosystem. Following the facts in the face of a movement to follow only the money.

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