D riving into Southern California’s Palo Verde Valley from the Arizona border, fields of vibrant green appear out of the desert like a mirage. Near the town of Blythe, water from the Colorado River turns the dry earth into verdant farmland, much of it to grow a single crop—alfalfa, a type of plant used mainly to feed dairy cows.
For decades, a significant portion of alfalfa grown here and elsewhere in the western United States—as much as 17 percent in 2017—has been loaded onto trucks, driven hundreds of miles to ports on the west coast, and shipped around the world, mainly to China, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. A little over five years ago, one company decided it made more sense to own the land, and the water that came with it, outright.
The company, a Saudi Arabian dairy firm called Almarai, purchased 1,790 acres in the Palo Verde Valley to secure a supply of alfalfa for its dairy cows. Soon after, Saudi Arabia began phasing out domestic alfalfa production to preserve its water supplies, which were dwindling after years of overuse for agriculture. The purchase made headlines as critics including local politicians and environmentalists questioned whether it was fair for a foreign entity to use up valuable groundwater resources for products that wouldn’t ultimately benefit Americans.