What California can learn from Saudi Arabia’s water mystery

1987

The full article by Nathan Halverson was originally written for Reveal News

A decade ago, reports began emerging of a strange occurrence in the Saudi Arabian desert. Ancient desert springs were drying up.

The springs fed the lush oases depicted in the Bible and Quran, and as the water disappeared, these verdant gardens of life were returning to sand.

“I remember flowing springs when I was a boy in the Eastern Province. Now all of these have dried up,” the head of the country’s Ministry of Water told The New York Times in 2003.

The springs had bubbled up for thousands of years from a massive aquifer system that lay underneath Saudi Arabia. Hydrologists calculated it was one of the world’s largest underground systems, holding as much groundwater as Lake Erie.

So farmers were puzzled as their wells dried, forcing them to drill ever deeper. They soon were drilling a mile down to continue tapping the water reserves that had transformed barren desert into rich irrigated fields, making Saudi Arabia the world’s sixth-largest exporter of wheat.

But the bounty didn’t last. Today, Saudi Arabia’s agriculture is collapsing. It’s almost out of water. And the underlying cause doesn’t bode well for farmers in places like California’s Central Valley, where desert lands also are irrigated with groundwater that is increasingly in short supply. Here’s a look at what happened, and what the United States, China and the rest of the world can learn from Saudi Arabia.

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What California can learn from Saudi Arabia’s water mystery