(Photo: Fadi El Binni/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Water is a precious resource in both California and Saudi Arabia, a fact highlighted by droughts in both places in recent years.

So it was curious, then, when a Saudi dairy company began buying up thousands of acres of farmland in California, ostensibly because growing water-intensive alfalfa was becoming impossible in Saudi Arabia. The alfalfa is intended to feed Almarai Co.’s stable of around 170,000 cows. 

But why flee one drought, with its restrictions on water usage, for another?

Water rights, it turns out, and laws that prioritize farmers when it comes to who gets water first. 

The land acquired by the Saudis earlier this year, for example, is in the Palo Verde Valley in California, which, according to the Associated Press, has first rights to water from the region’s main source of fresh water, the Colorado River. That’s in part because of who discovered it, valley residents who claimed the river in 1877, leaving cities like Los Angeles and San Diego literally in the dust. 

Aside from water rights there’s a second controversy brewing, on whether it is sustainable long-term to grow such a resource-needy plant when there’s so little water to be had in the first place. That it likely isn’t sustainable has not so far deterred Almarai or its cows. 

“The cows feed multiple times a day, and they need to be certain that they are always able to fulfill that unwavering demand,” an attorney for the company tells the AP.