Water Saudis
Climate Adaptation Climate Change Life Observations

Water: Let the Saudis have it

Neville Braunbeck — Climate Change Migrant

Images from the camera at the bottom of Neville’s well were indistinct at first, but the picture came into focus as the camera stopped moving. Gary checked the equipment again and released a few pink biodegradable floating beads, which landed on the water’s surface and slowly drifted to the east side of the well. Your well is like all of the others in this area. The water is visibly flowing.

“How is that possible, Gary?” Neville and Gary had known each other since they were teenagers. After high school, Gary went on to get a Ph.D. in hydrogeology, while Neville stayed and worked on his father’s farm. It was his farm now since his father passed away several years ago. All he had ever wanted to do was be a farmer. But now, 22 years into a mega-drought, he saw his way of life crumbling.

“Gary stood and pointed to the east. It’s the alfalfa farms. They are draining water from under your land. That’s why you and other small farms in La Paz county are seeing your wells run dry. When your father and grandfather farmed this land, most people assumed the aquifer below their farms was a permanent water source. But that’s not how aquifers work. They are fixed containers, and like a bank account, you have to replace the water you withdraw to keep them full. The ongoing mega-drought in the American Southwest means less water coming in. The alfalfa farms mean more water going out. The equation doesn’t balance.”

“It stinks, Gary. My farm is squeaking by with a small profit. But the loans to drill my wells deeper would keep me stuck in the red.”

“You are up against a tough situation, Neville; I won’t sugarcoat it. We are in the worst drought for the past 1200 years, and Al Dahra’s operations are sucking vast quantities of water from the main aquifers to grow a water-hungry crop like alfalfa. Then they ship the alfalfa back to the Middle East to feed livestock and cattle.”

“Why don’t they just use their own damn water?”

“That’s part of the rub, Neville. Saudi Arabia outlawed growing crops like alfalfa in 2018 because they are running out of water and can’t afford to use it on high-water-demand crops. So they came here.”

“How is that right, Gary? They are protecting their own water by draining American farmers dry, driving us out of business. They’re stealing our water.”

“It’s not right, Neville, but it’s legal. It’s illegal to ship water out of the State. But it’s perfectly legal to turn the water into cattle feed and ship it out of the country. I know people don’t want to hear this, but the real problem is not the Saudis; it is the failing, antiquated system of water management we have in Arizona. Over eighty percent of the state allows a landowner to drill a well and pump unlimited amounts of water. The deepest pockets can afford to drill the deepest wells, and they legally suck the water from beneath their neighbor’s land. That’s why your wells are running dry. For a hydrologist like me, it’s unprecedented to see pump rates so high that we visibly detect water flowing off the adjacent farms.”

“Gary, you and I go way back, and I appreciate you coming out and looking at my wells. What I hear you telling me is that between climate change and piss-poor State water management, farms like mine are screwed. I’m the fourth generation of my family to farm this land. My heart and soul are here.”

“It’s not just you, Neville. Over in Wenden, the town’s water levels have been plummeting for over seventy years. The water level in their wells has dropped over 400 feet. Hell, they are worried that the current rate of water used by the Middle Eastern owned farms is dropping the water levels too low to supply the town’s water safely. Look around. It’s not like there is a lake nearby to draw water from. The nearest water reservoirs are north across the Harcuvar and Buckskin Mountains.”

Gary continues, “The Saudi and other Middle Eastern companies never made a secret about what they were doing. Foreign-owned agricultural land in the midwest has quadrupled over the past decade. Our politicians and state water regulators knew full well what they were doing when they sanctioned these deals.”

“You know, Gary, as a farmer, I accept the risk of weather disasters, climate change, and fluctuating market prices for my crops. But it hurts when my own State, where four generations of Braunbecks have lived and died, stabs me in the back, making foreign corporations rich by giving away the water under my land. Water is the lifeblood of our family farm. Without water, there is no life here.”

“What are you going to do, Neville?”

“You remember Rose, don’t you, my little sister?” Gary nods his head. “She and her husband live just outside of Portland, Oregon, in a town called Oregon City. They have two little girls now. I’m thinking about packing it in, selling the farm, and moving to the West Coast to be near them. Oregon is a big agricultural state, and Rose figures I could wrangle some work there.”

“It’s a big move, Neville. What are you going to do about all those liberals? They don’t call it the Left Coast for nothing.” Gary, a liberal academic, smiled at Neville as he touched on their long-standing political discussion.

“I will have to roll with the punch, my friend. Anyways, I don’t see the good old boys around here lifting a finger to stop the Saudis from stealing my water. Money seems to be more important than constituents. Hell, maybe next time we meet, I’ll be a woke climate change activist, wanting the government to tax me more and implement lots of regulations. Hopefully, they will be regulations that benefit the State’s citizens, not just large wealthy foreign companies.”

The Climate Change Migrant stories use real science and events combined with fictional characters.


Wells are running dry in drought-weary Southwest as foreign-owned farms guzzle water to feed cattle overseas (Source: CNN)

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.