Almarai Co., Saudi Arabia's largest dairy company, has bought about 14,000 acres in drought-stricken Southern California and Arizona in an effort to grow hay for its massive herd of cows. The purchase has fueled debate over whether a patchwork of laws and court rulings give too much weight to growers of thirsty crops such as alfalfa. Some answers to common questions about the deal:
Q: Why is Saudi Arabia's largest dairy company buying U.S. land?
A: To conserve water, the country has adopted bans on selected crops. Agriculture accounted for 90 percent of Saudi Arabia's water consumption, according to a 2013 study by the Oxford Business Group.
Saudi Arabia identified the United States as one of 16 countries for agricultural investment in 2010, according to a memo from the U.S. embassy in Riyadh to the U.S. Agriculture Department that was obtained by WikiLeaks. The embassy said the investment could be "a tangible demonstration of the value of outreach to the Muslim world and (could) offer an opportunity to broaden and deepen our relationship." The memo noted that while food security has not been a major problem in Saudi Arabia, "food prices have become politically sensitive."
Q: What do the locals think?
A: Some have raised concern about the amount of water needed but many welcome the economic boost that Almarai has given as worries about China have dimmed prospects for alfalfa exports. Jack Seiler, who farms about 3,800 acres in Palo Verde Valley, now sells about 30 percent of his harvest to Almarai, compared with nothing a few years ago.
"They're banging it out, I'm telling you," said Seiler. "They kind of cleaned us out of summer hay ... They want to farm."
Seiler voices more concern about the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Last year, the nation's largest distributor of drinking water became Palo Verde Valley's largest landowner, tapping a deep distrust between farm and city that pervades the West.
Q: What are the water rights in these areas?
A: Palo Verde Valley enjoys California's first rights to water from the Colorado River, a lifeline to seven Western U.S. states and northern Mexico. A 1922 compact that parceled out allotments gave California more than 10 times what Nevada got.
California long consumed more Colorado River water than it was entitled to, which was never a problem until Sunbelt cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas began to clamor for their full share. A 2003 truce among California's warring water agencies kept the Palo Verde Irrigation District at the front of the line and also left the agricultural Imperial Valley near the top of the pecking order. That honored a Gold Rush era-doctrine that the first settlers to stake claim hold the highest-priority rights.
La Paz County, Arizona, is free of well-pumping restrictions that hamstring many of the state's largest cities under a 1980 law to protect aquifers. The city of Phoenix bought about 13,000 acres there in 1986 and sold it in 2012 after giving up on building infrastructure to carry water about 100 miles to the nation's sixth-largest city. The city of Scottsdale has about 1,200 acres in the area on the premise that it will eventually have a system to move water from farm to city.