Is water a God-given right?

Most people think access to water is a God-given right, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. History is filled with legal precedents trying to resolve basic water rights; essentially sorting out the “haves versus the have-nots”. Even today, in water-scarce areas like South Africa and the Middle East, unstable governments are allowing private companies to provide water services. Unfortunately, many of these large corporations are callously controlling limited water resources making access to this life-giving substance an economic burden for the poor.

Here in Arizona, a new “land rush” has begun in rural areas with the express intent of gaining access to aquifers virtually unregulated by Arizona state water law. Farmers from drought-stricken areas of California, outside investors and even corporations from Saudi Arabia are purchasing large tracts of land in rural counties to grow water-intensive crops, often for international export. Counties which have already been impacted include Mohave, Cochise and La Paz.  Could Yavapai County be next?

The intentions behind these new land investments have provoked controversy. One of the better-known investors of property in Willcox (Cochise County) is Howard G. Buffett, son of billionaire Warren Buffet. He was quoted in a January 27, 2016, Arizona Public Media article saying “You don’t buy land here. You buy water.”  Buffet’s Arizona holdings include 4,400 acres in the Willcox area and he’s leasing another 4,500 acres from the state of Arizona for a family foundation engaged in agricultural research.  He says they’ll keep the research going unless they run out of water.

Tempers flared in Mohave County when a Modesto California nut company moved into the Kingman area amassing more than 5,800 acres of land to grow pistachios, walnuts, and almonds. A January 21, 2016, Havasu News online article estimates a potential drawdown of 24,000 acre-feet of water annually – that’s over 7.8 billion gallons a year!

What was troublesome to some Mohave County locals was the seemingly clandestine approach used to purchase the land. The company bought the land under three separate limited liability companies, including “Mohave Valley University LLC,” “Valle Vista Environmental Studies LLC,” and “RB Ranch Development LLC”; company names which hardly suggest large-scale farming operations.

In La Paz County, hackles have been raised by foreign entities purchasing land to export high water use crops, such as alfalfa, to Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.  In a January 15, 2016, article, Keith Murfield, CEO of Tempe-based United Dairymen of Arizona, believes the Saudi alfalfa shipments are basically “exporting water,” because in Saudi Arabia, “they have decided that it’s better to bring feed in rather than to empty their water reserves.”

What’s disconcerting to county officials in all three areas is this “water farming” phenomenon is entirely legal under Arizona state law. When Arizona established the once ground-breaking 1980 Groundwater Management Act, it established “Active Management Areas” (AMAs) in most urban areas (Prescott being one) and “Irrigation Non-Expansion Areas (INAs) in three rural areas where over-pumping was already a concern. The rest of the state was left to “reasonable and beneficial use” – which essentially means unlimited use.

County supervisors and municipal officials have limited authority to stop land investors from mining groundwater for crops. In the same article cited above, La Paz County Board of Supervisors Chairman Holly Irwin voiced strong opposition to this export practice noting “It’s very frustrating for me, especially when I have residents telling me that their wells are going dry and they have to dig a lot deeper for water.” A similar situation has already occurred in the Pierce and Sunsites area of Cochise County.

How would you handle this dilemma if you were a County Supervisor in rural Arizona?


* Portions of this article were published in The Daily Courier’s “Talk of the Town” column on November 1, 2016. (Prescott, AZ)

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