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Arizona Takes Aim at Alfalfa Farming in Water-Stressed Regions

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Arizona’s governor has moved to cancel lease agreements with several companies that tap underground water to farm alfalfa on state-owned land, including leases held by a subsidiary of Saudi Arabia dairy giant Almarai.  

The governor, in explaining the action, said the companies had violated the terms of the agreements. But the Arizona leases, and the companies’ use of underground water, have also become environmental and political controversies in a state beset by growing water shortages and prolonged heat waves. 

The Almarai subsidiary, Fondomonte, grows alfalfa on thousands of acres in western Arizona that is predominantly exported to the Middle East as animal feed. Fondomonte, the second-largest renter of public land in Arizona, also has operations in California. 

Alfalfa, a forage crop, is grown in some of Arizona’s most water-stressed counties, according to Gro’s Water Stress Index. Maricopa County, which includes the state’s biggest city, Phoenix, is the largest alfalfa producer. The county ranks at the “medium” water stress level on the Gro Index, which scores water stress on a scale from 0, or no stress, to 5, or extremely high stress. 

In neighboring Pinal County, the No. 2 alfalfa producer, water stress is considerably more elevated, scoring at 3.2, or “high,” on the Gro Index’s 0-5 scale. But in La Paz County, where Fondomonte primarily operates, water stress is “low.” (See the map below of Gro’s Water Stress Index scores for US counties.)

Gro’s Water Stress Index calculates historical averages of water stress based on a global hydrology and water resources model that simulates moisture storage and water exchange between the soil, atmosphere, and groundwater reservoirs. The model also estimates water demand for irrigation, livestock, industry, and households. Water stress occurs when available supplies aren’t sufficient to meet demand.

Arizona’s governor has said that even in cases where water stress is low, the water supplies are important as backup for other parts of the state, especially as Colorado River resources run low. 

Alfalfa, a nutritious and high-yielding forage legume, is a big consumer of water in the western US. It receives a significant portion of Colorado River water in several states. And in California, alfalfa is the single biggest agricultural user of water. 

View this Gro display of alfalfa growing locations, quantities, and yields across the US. 

Arizona’s warm temperatures and predictable climate make it a desirable place to grow alfalfa. The crop can essentially grow all year long in the Southwestern desert, offering multiple cuts of hay. Due to the long growing season, alfalfa yields per acre in Arizona are some 150% greater than the national average. 

Since the start of this century, Arizona’s alfalfa production has increased more than 40%. Arizona is the No. 7 alfalfa producer, behind other states such as Idaho and Montana.

Arizona’s governor said she would immediately cancel one land lease agreement with Fondomonte and wouldn’t renew others that are soon to expire. Fondomonte has said it would appeal the lease terminations. 

Gro’s Water Stress Index shows that some of the most severely stressed US counties are in the Southwest and up through the Great Plains. Water stress can occur anytime available water supplies aren’t sufficient to meet demand. The Gro Index calculates historical averages of water stress based on a global hydrology and water resources model, and assigns scores on a scale of 0, or no stress, to 5, or extremely high stress.

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