Land ownership and water usage collide in Arizona

Market to Market | Clip
Dec 1, 2023 | 2 min

Foreign land ownership is on the rise.

According to a Investigative Midwest report, land owned or leased by foreign individuals or companies has tripled since 2015.

USDA records reveal 40 million acres have ties to owners outside of the United States as of 2021. According to federal government statistics, there are 893 million acres designated as farmland. 

Ownership is now coalescing with the long contentious issue in the West of water rights.

Colleen Bradford Krantz reports.



Large swaths of the water-intensive crop alfalfa sit between the mountains in the McMullen Valley just west of Phoenix, Arizona. 

Over the past few years, the levels in the valley’s ancient aquifers have been dropping, leaving some wells bone dry.

A few neighbors have been complaining since the Emirati agribusiness Al Dahara began farming about 3,000 acres several years ago.

Gary Saiter, chairman of the board and general manager, Wenden Domestic Water Improvement District: “In 1957, the water level below the surface where we're standing was 107ft. So in other words, you drill 107 ft to touch water. Today it's 542ft.”

Part of the state’s issue is not knowing the exact amount of water being pulled by the mega-users from the aquifers.  

Kathryn Sorensen, Research Director, University of Arizona Kyl Center: “In rural Arizona basically, you know, it's the Wild West and it's subject to the law of the biggest well. So whoever has the biggest well and pumps the most groundwater wins. So it is not regulated in any meaningful way.”

Arizona’s governor yanked the state’s land lease in October for another La Paz County alfalfa farm, one operated by Saudi dairy giant Almarai Company. 

Foreign and out-of-state owners of U.S. farms are not banned from farming in Arizona, nor are they prohibited from selling their goods worldwide. U.S. farmers commonly export hay and other forage crops to countries including Saudi Arabia and China. 

Colorado River diversion has long been a source of water for the state and curtailed allotments have also contributed to the issue of less water.

In Arizona’s Cochise County, where landowners rely on groundwater, residents worry that the mega-dairy operated there by Riverview LLP of Minnesota could also deplete their water supplies. The company did not respond to a request for comment about its water use.

Matthew Hancock, Arizona farmer: “Regulation can be a slippery slope if not done properly. I think looking in an area and seeing what water is there and then adjusting accordingly with the proper experts and the proper knowledge, not just shooting from the hip, a political reason it maybe in the proper way of doing it.”

For Market to Market, I’m Colleen Bradford Krantz.