vol. 1 issue 4
April 22, 2019
First, while attending a concert at the Library of Congress, I ran into House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.). You might recall the docu-mental post musing about Chairman Cummings’s friendship with fellow committee member Mark Meadows (R-NC). I told him about what I had written and asked him about their friendship and how it might help the work he and Meadows are currently undertaking on the committee, including several investigations into potential illegalities engaged in either by POTUS 45 and/or his administration. Click on the link above to hear Chairman Cummings’s response.
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Now, let’s docu-mental some news.
Are the Saudis drinking our milkshake?
Photo of the Palo Verde Valley, Calif., Dick Lyon, creativecommons.org
There’s been an uptick in national and even international coverage of a Saudi Arabian company, the publicly traded Almarai, owning water rights in the extraordinarily drought-stricken Palo Verde Valley in California. A recent article in the UK’s Guardian asks:
What business does a foreign company have drawing precious resources from a US desert to offset a lack of resources halfway around the globe?
If this question is ever to be addressed as a matter of policy, any lasting solution will need to be framed less as a question of proximity to a natural resource and more as one of whether access to it is a basic human right. The answer is not so straight forward.
We all need access to potable water to live. By worrying over who should “own” the rights to that water, we imply that “rights” are commodities. In this equation, we are forced to buy what we need to live. It’s not going to be there for us unless we can produce something of value in exchange for access to it. But “rights” have a superior meaning in this country, because we are Constitutionally guaranteed the right to pursue happiness. We’re less likely to be happy if we’re dead or sick, which is what happens when we don’t have access to potable water.
The Saudis need to buy the water to grow alfalfa to feed Saudi cows. Cows, in the desert. Almarai is one of the world’s largest dairy farming operations, and according to its Wiki page, the largest vertically integrated one. Let that sink in. Cows. Desert. Biggest dairy operation on planet. Almarai alone (it’s one of several such dairies in the desert) has upwards of 150,000 head of cattle alone. Air conditioned cows? Of course. Desert. 150 liters of water per cow to drink, per day. Desert. You get the idea.
Alfalfa is water-intensive. Saudi Arabia is a desert (you knew that). In 2016, the SA Kingdom outlawed alfalfa farming because it was depleting their water supplies. They bought up rights to our water instead. Water that flows through a drought-stricken desert valley. Water we allow to be used without limit because unlike the Saudis, we haven’t imposed restrictions on it, and given the political pull of the big agricultural insterests — including Almarai’s, which includes 16% of all water rights in the Palo Verde Irrigation District — restrictions are not coming any time soon, if ever.
The PVID is the modern day benficiary of a first-come, first-served prize of a claim to the river in California, purchased from the U.S. federal government by an 1800s San Francisco-based prospector named Thomas Blythe. Blythe paid for exclusive rights to the river for mining and farming, and now, because it was historically the first claim in the state on the river’s waters, whoever owns it still gets unlimited, first dibs on the water. That means members of the PVID pay about $75 more or less per acre for access to the water. As the Guardian points out, this arrangement does nothing to discourage profligate use of the water, since the rate is the same no matter how much is used.
The only thing farmers in the valley are required to pay is overhead for making the water available.
Oh, and by the way…the Colorado River is at a record low.
Let’s back up a moment to see why cows are living in the desert to begin with, and why the Saudis want our nation’s water supply to sustain them. In the late 1970s, Prince Sultan bin Mohammed bin Saud Al Kabeer sought to implement food self-sufficiency in his country. Begging the question as to whether Saudi desert dairy farming could ever truly be a self-sustainable form of agriculture, because importation of fresh dairy across long distances is tricky, the only way to achieve local dairy food autarky was to source and import water and feed from elsewhere. Even more ironic, the technology used originated in the California and Arizona deserts.
Almarai has its fans in the Palo Verde Valley. It’s a major employer in the area, offering benefits like healthcare plans and vacation, and it buys alfalfa from other farms, too. Here’s a quote from the Guardian article
“The Saudis, they’re here buying up at a good price,” [the assistant manager of the Palo Verde Irrigation District] explained. “They’re just the same as everyone else. They buy local. It’s a shot in the arm for the economy.”
But it’s doing all this “good” by profiting off a system that if unchecked, will destroy the valley by draining it dry. Who wins then? For a startling look at the intensive use of resources Saudis and other Middle Eastern countries rely upon for their mega dairy farms, here is an article CNN.com ran in 2013. Just this month, National Geographic reports that the Kingdom has slurped up so much of its own water supply to slake its dairy habit, that four-fifths of the underground freshwater supply there is G-O-N-E. Did I mention it’s a desert? And because it rarely rains in the desert, National Geographic reports:
One of the planet's greatest and oldest freshwater resources, in one of its hottest and most parched places, has been all but emptied in little more than a generation.
Almarai owns still more water rights in Arizona, and even more in Argentina, which also has its own water challenges. And although the Saudis deny it, they’ve been accused of some serious human rights violations in pursuit of water in places like Ethiopia.
And while no one has declared human rights violations are at play in California, not publicly anyway, the American Journal of Public Health reports that mental health concerns directly related to drought fears are real and on the rise.
Meanwhile, the Saudi Kingdom pushes news reports like this one celebrating the desalination technology it sells to drought-stricken California!
Permit me please to point out the obvious. This is insane. We sell access to our fresh water sources to foreigners who may or may not have our best interests at heart, from whom we then purchase technology to desalinate the oceans when what we might do is better manage the fresh water we just sold to the very people selling us technology that will make the oceans drinkable.
This is precisely the kind of cognitive dissonance inherent in our policy making that makes people anxious and depressed. It also leads to scarcity mentality, suspicion of others, and fears over whether there is enough to go around. There isn’t enough to go around, by the way. If there were, then the Saudis wouldn’t need to know how to desalinate the oceans.
There are some other considerations at play in the valley. One is that Almarai and PepsiCo together are the parent companies of the largest Egyptian-based dairy producer, Beyti, which is what allowed Almarai to become the integrated international behemoth it is. Another is that law suits are flying between PVID and the entity representing various cities that rely on the district for their municipal water supplies. At issue is whether the cities are collectively purchasing farms to lie fallow while diverting the water to the cities instead. And then there is the recent show down between the nearby Imperial Irrigation District and the Trump administration over whether a drought plan the president signed into law violates California environmental laws.
These factors are germane because they are manifestations of the deeper faultline in the argument: do we value the right to profit over the right to live?
The focus should be on how we define the word “right”.
Once the billionaire Saudi prince established food “sustainability”, however dubious, in his homeland, he went on to build his company into the world’s largest and most profitable dairies — with water Californians are now fighting over because Californians sold it to his company.
Why did he have the “right” to ask to buy that water, and why did Californians have a “right” to sell it? Does anyone have the right to profit exponentially while others are fighting to surivive now that access to the source of those profits is cut off or drasitcally limited? Would it be a violation of anyone’s rights if officals at the PVID only sold water rights to organizations that demonstrated committment to sustainable water management practices?
These are the real questions we need to address not just in California, but as a nation. How we answer them will determine whether we achieve effective policy making around access to resources, or whether we continue to make ourselves crazy.
From There Will Be Blood:
Stay tuned for our first podcast of Washington Remembers, coming in May. We will speak with Reagan biographer and former Time Magazine White House Bureau Chief, Laurence I. Barrett. He’ll talk about the behind-the-scene feuds between Barbara and Nancy, why a certain photo exists of Larry seated on a couch with Nancy’s stocking feet up by his knees (we will run that photo…), and what Reagan was really like when he was off camera, among other unexpected tidbits.