Arizona’s Aquifers Are a Laboratory of Our Dry Future

AP Photo/Matt York,File

You might not have heard of the Sulphur Springs Valley, but in this remote cover of southeastern Arizona, the entire world’s pending water crisis is being played out.

For The New York Times Magazine, Noah Gallagher Shannon reports on how lax water regulations and under-utilized land have created a gold-rush mentality that is draining the desert valley’s ancient aquifer. Big corporate farmers moved in to capitalize on the nut-growing craze. There are no streams or reservoirs here. Life depends on the aquifer, and as the big farms drain it, homeowners’ wells and smaller farms’ wells have gone dry. Although huge farms can afford to drill deeper for water, residents who need the water to bathe and drink can’t afford to drill deeper. And smaller farmers can’t compete either. But in the end, everyone loses when the aquifer goes dry. And it will. For a sense of scale, Shannon writes that “In 2017 alone, one farm pumped 22 billion gallons, nearly double the volume of bottled water sold in the United States annually.”

Arizona was particularly attractive to Middle Eastern farmers. A policy of unregulated pumping on the Arabian Peninsula had, in 40 years, drained aquifers that had taken 20,000 years to form, leaving thousands of acres fallow and forcing Saudi Arabia and others to outsource much of their agricultural production. In 2014, a Saudi Arabian-owned company, the Almarai Corporation, bought 10,000 acres in the town of Vicksburg, northwest of Sulphur Springs Valley, planting alfalfa to ship halfway around the world to feed Saudi cattle. Then, a United Arab Emirates farming corporation, Al Dahra, bought several thousand-acre farms along both sides of the Arizona-California border. These purchases were perfectly legal, but many residents felt these newcomers were essentially “exporting water.” At least once, the Sheriff’s Department in Vicksburg deployed five deputies to stand guard at a town-hall meeting.

With less rain and snow reaching the desert floor, overpumping has rendered a semi-renewable resource finite, touching off the kind of resource war perhaps more familiar to coal camps and oil boomtowns. Hydrogeologists use the phrase “groundwater mining” to describe situations in which the rate of water withdrawal exceeds the rate of replenishment. For some, the metaphor offers a stark lesson. “If we know we’re mining the water, let’s just say it,” said Richard Searle, when I visited at his ranch outside Willcox. At 63, Searle still cuts a frontiersman’s profile; a cutting-horse competitor and former bank manager, he is descended from a prominent ranching family and formerly served as county supervisor. Part of the reason groundwater mining in the valley hadn’t forced a reckoning earlier, he said, was that water was ubiquitous to the point of being invisible. Local farmers were never required to put meters on their wells, he pointed out, which meant that nobody knew exactly how much water was being pumped, much less how much was left. “Long term, people say we should search for a solution,” he said, “but they don’t want to be the ones to suffer.”

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