State blocks plans for new deepwater wells at Saudi-owned farm

New attorney general reviewing leases, well applications
The state of Arizona has rescinded its approval for two new deepwater wells for controversial Saudi Arabia-owned farms in the desert west of Phoenix.
Published: Apr. 20, 2023 at 5:04 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- The state of Arizona has rescinded its approval for two new deepwater wells for a controversial Saudi Arabia-owned farm in the desert west of Phoenix. The two wells would have each pumped 3,000 gallons of water per minute, according to Attorney General Kris Mayes.

“The state had approved back in August two new deepwater wells for this company,” said Mayes. During her campaign last year, she criticized the Saudi farming operation and vowed to take action against it.

The company Fondomonte Arizona leases thousands of acres of state land in the Butler Valley. The farm grows alfalfa and uses sprinklers to irrigate the crops. The alfalfa is exported to feed dairy cattle in Saudi Arabia. The company does not pay for the water it uses.

The new wells would have pumped up to 3,000 gallons of water per minute. An average Phoenix family of four uses roughly 17,000 gallons of water per month, meaning the two new wells would have pumped in just three minutes what a family of four uses in a month.

Mayes says her office found inconsistencies in the applications for the new wells. When she brought that to the attention of the state land department, the department agreed to rescind its approval of the wells. “They already have wells out there and we need to get those canceled as well. And I’m working as hard as I can to get that done, either canceled or not renewed next year when they come up,” said Mayes.

Mayes also criticized the Arizona Department of Water Resources for failing to conduct hydrologic studies on how much water exists in Arizona’s rural aquifers and for failing to create new active management areas, which would begin a framework for regulating water use in rural parts of the state. Currently, Maricopa, Pinal, Pima, Santa Cruz, and a small portion of Cochise County have active management areas. However, the bulk of the rest of the state has no framework for regulating water use. As a result, landowners may pump as much water as they can.

Several large corporate farms in western and southeastern Arizona have come under criticism for using large amounts of water. In some cases, neighbors have complained that the corporate farms have used so much water that neighboring wells have run dry. In addition, Arizona faces the possibility of losing substantial amounts of Colorado River water when the federal government announces new action to combat low water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The southwestern United States is experiencing a severe drought.

“We know by anecdotal evidence that wells are being de-watered by these big farming operations. We know that land is subsiding. We can see that with our eyes,” said Mayes. “We have existing law that we don’t think his being followed,” she said.