Critics say big businesses are taking advantage of Arizona’s outdated water law

Some corporate farms in rural Arizona are pumping millions of gallons of water out of the ground, turning a dry desert into green farmland.
Updated: Feb. 20, 2023 at 6:00 AM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - As western states brace for cuts to their allocation of Colorado River water, some corporate farms in rural Arizona are pumping millions of gallons of water out of the ground, turning a dry desert into green farmland.

Critics of the current system say big farms are taking advantage of an outdated water law that allows landowners outside of active management areas to pump virtually as much water as they want to with little to no regulation. Arizona’s main active management areas are in Maricopa, Pinal, Pima, and Santa Cruz counties, leaving much of rural Arizona water use unregulated.

“If you just let anybody pump what they want, then whoever can drill deep wells can do exactly that, and they can pump as much water as they want and undercut everybody else in the area,” said Natalie Koch, a professor at Syracuse University.

One stark example is the Fondomonte Arizona alfalfa farm in the Butler Valley, located west of Phoenix. The farm is owned by a company from Saudi Arabia. The hay grown there is used to feed cattle in the Middle Eastern country.

Fondomonte pumps millions of gallons of water to irrigate thousands of acres of alfalfa. However, the arrangement the farm has with the state of Arizona to use leased land has prompted outcries from critics and politicians. “The problem is the broken system. It is not evil outsiders coming to take advantage of us. What they are doing is they are just highlighting the problems with the system,” said Koch.

Koch argues that state lawmakers need to update the state’s 43 year old water law and create more active management areas to regulate water use across Arizona. “There needs to be some way of monitoring and regulating who is drawing what from the aquifers,” said Koch.

As of the publishing of this article, no such bill is being considered by the state legislature. Rural Arizona residents have voted against creating new water restrictions, except in 2022 in Cochise County, where residents voted to create a recent AMA. “Farmers are taking a hard look at what they’re doing right now,” said Jeffrey Silvertooth, a soil scientist at the University of Arizona.

Silvertooth says much opposition to new water regulation comes from a reluctance to accept government oversight in rural Arizona. But he says farmers need to accept a dryer future if they want to stay in business. Agriculture uses 70% of the state’s potable water. And most of the reductions of the Colorado River are aimed at farms.

But Silvertooth argues that the agriculture industry is too important to let slip away. “We have about 23, 24 billion dollar industry from agriculture as a whole. I say we can’t afford not to have agriculture in this state,” said Silvertooth.

Meantime, some Arizona communities are already seeing their wells run dry. One of them is the Rio Verde Foothills, located northeast of Scottsdale. “We’ve started using the rainwater to flush our toilets because we knew that was a big waste of potable water,” said Leigh Harris, who lives in Rio Verde.

Although the circumstances surrounding the community’s water woes are unique and not the result of agriculture, Harris worries that Rio Verde may come to symbolize what could happen to more Arizona communities in the future. “We literally are the first ones to walk the plank,” said Harris.