Can This River Be Saved?

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S1: This event is being recorded, so please take that into consideration if you choose to participate.

S2: On August 16th, the Bureau of Reclamation, the part of the Interior Department that manages water in the western U.S., held a press conference online.

S1: I’m honored to introduce the Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, MS. Tanya Trujillo, to discuss 2022 operations.

S2: The virtual press conference had all the stilted aesthetics of pandemic life, government officials and video chat, long pauses and awkward script reading.

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S3: Good afternoon, I’m Tanya Trujillo, the assistant secretary for water and science at the Department of the Interior.

S2: Trujillo’s monotone introduction didn’t capture the gravity of what she was there to say for the first time in the 99 years that the government has been keeping records, they were declaring a water shortage on the Colorado River, a river that 40 million Americans rely on.

S3: We are seeing the effects of climate change in the Colorado River Basin through extended drought, extreme temperatures, expansive wildfires and in some places, flooding and landslides. And now is the time to take action to respond to them.

S2: Starting in January, farmers, ranchers and irrigation districts will be forced to use less water. Arizona will be hit particularly hard for people who’ve been watching the Colorado for years, like ProPublica reporter Abrahm Lustgarten. This shortage was entirely predictable.

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S4: Do you ever feel like Cassandra?

S5: I don’t know how to answer that, I mean, I’d like to try to look around corners a little bit with what I’m hearing from the climate community and the environment community. And yeah, I get a bad rap for being the bearer of bad news.

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S2: Abrahm wrote a series of stories called Killing the Colorado that laid out the mistakes, policy choices and human stubbornness that brought us to this point.

S5: You know, on one hand, climate changes, impacts on the river are surprising. They’re coming faster, you know, and they’re they’re having greater impact than some people expected. But on the other hand, the river’s been in trouble for a long, long time, and that’s not a surprise to the people that watch it closely

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S2: today on the show. Abrahm explains how we got here and whether there’s a path forward out of this emergency. I’m Lizzie O’Leary and you’re listening to what makes TBD a show about technology power, how the future will be determined.

S6: Stick with us.

S4: You know, I think if you’re sitting on the East Coast or maybe in parts of the Midwest or in the South, you might not have a mental picture of the Colorado River

S2: and the Colorado River sort of ecosystem. Are there images in your head

S4: or things you think about that can help people kind of visualize what we’re talking about?

S5: I mean, I’ve been up and down the river and it’s a 4400 mile system, you know, burst from the high in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, all the way down to the Gulf of California and Mexico. I mean, the iconic images are the big dams, the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead outside of Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon Dam and Lake Powell in northern Arizona. And those are just desert landscapes of red rocks and cliffs lining this immense sort of pool of water. But then I lived in Colorado for a number of years, and the Colorado River there is, you know, is a raging clear stream full of trout running through high mountains, with snowmelt running into it through gorgeous meadows of green grasses. And it’s really that kind of idyllic cliche of a big wild river.

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S4: I think one thing that I have been struck by in your reporting is the vastness of

S2: who relies on this river system, who depends on it.

S5: So 40 million Americans give or take depend on water from the Colorado River, but that water is also used to irrigate farms that provide an incredible proportion of the fruits and vegetables they get shipped around the country, as well as feed for the cattle. That is a really substantial portion of the meat consumed by Americans, so grocery store shelves on the East Coast packed with carrots and lettuce, very likely those vegetables were grown with Colorado River Water. And the same with your meat and your hamburgers. In addition to that, the water is routed outside of the Colorado River Basin to the cities of Phoenix, the cities of Los Angeles and San Diego and Denver, none of which are in the natural geography of the Colorado River. Hmm.

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S4: I want to back up a little bit and understand kind of the foundations that were laid frankly 100 years ago for some of where we ended up now. And I’m talking about the

S2: the legal framework for how the water would be used.

S5: Yeah. So there’s layers of laws that cover how the river is divided up. But the fundamental in the top layer one is this agreement that you’re referring to between the seven states that share the Colorado River. And in this nineteen twenty two compact, they essentially used what data they had, which was really limited to calculate how much water they thought would be flowing through the Colorado River on average and took that amount and divided it proportionally amongst the seven of them.

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S2: So we’re talking in Arizona,

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S4: California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming. Right? Yes.

S5: So they divided amongst some, not equally, but proportional to what they each agreed was their relative claim on the river. And they proceeded forward for the next hundred years, never really changing that amount, even as the data improved and you could see over a greater period of time that the river’s flow was actually substantially less.

S4: I think that’s one of the things that is so head scratching to me is that, you know, this agreement that was drawn up in 1922 hasn’t really been changed.

S5: Yeah, there’s been talk of changing it off and on over those years. In 2007, these same parties came together and reached an agreement about what they would do if there ever was a serious shortage on the river. So they agreed that they would each absorb some cuts, and it didn’t really specify what those cuts would be. But it wasn’t until 2019 that they actually reached a third agreement, which, you know, which specified exactly how much water Arizona would lose when we have a shortage declaration and how much California would lose and so forth. But these are kind of adjustments still to that 1922 compact. They don’t fundamentally change that compact. And if the if the rivers flow were to increase again in the future, these states would still revert back to that larger amount of water that they agreed 100 years ago that they would each receive.

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S2: The problem is complicated. The 1922 compact overestimated how much water was in the river system to begin with. And now, of course, there’s even less. On top of that, the rules about divvying up the water, whether your city, an irrigation district or a rancher essentially operate like dibbs or calling shotgun in a car,

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S5: the phrase that people like to use in the West is first in time, first in right. And what that essentially means is the people or the water users who arrived in these places where the water is used first and claimed the water when they got their hold. The most senior water rights and their water rights remain senior. No matter who comes after them and those senior water rights. Trump junior water rights, even to this day, with an exception, the law says that if you don’t use those senior water rights to their full extent every year, that they could be confiscated and given to somebody with more junior water rights. And so what happens across many parts of the upper basin? In my reporting, I was talking to ranchers in Colorado and Wyoming, for example, is that even if they don’t need all the water, they’re allowed to take in a given year, they take it all anyway, and they dump it out so that from a legal basis, they can tell the state that they take their water every single year and they don’t risk losing their rights. So you multiply that by thousands and thousands of water users, and you have a pretty extraordinary inefficiency right there.

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S4: Why has this almost frontier mindset survived to to 2021 in the way we think about and legislate water?

S5: Part of it is cultural. The culture of the West survives in, you know, in the north and the mountains. It’s, you know, a culture of rugged individualism. And in the south it is still a bit individualistic and conservative. And you couple that with this sort of seniority, nature of water rights and the rights to the water track, to the history of the place, not to how it has evolved in more modern times. And a perfect example of that is that cities didn’t exist in the mid eighteen hundreds, and so they have very junior water rights now, even though that’s where most of the people are so literally the largest volume of water goes to the people in places with the deepest historical roots.

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S2: Add to that unprecedented drought for two decades, plus losing water to evaporation and leaky old infrastructure. It doesn’t look like the shortage. The government declared last month is going away any time soon.

S5: What’s most significant to me when I look at the shortage declaration in August is that it also came with a forecast for what the Federal Bureau of Reclamation expects the future water levels to be. And they forecast a significant possibility of very, very severe shortages and further drops in Lake Mead by the middle of 2023. And that would force an entirely new negotiation that would basically put the river system outside of the sphere that these seven states have so far considered a new paradigm of shortage, if you will. And it’s really unclear what happens next

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S2: when we come back. Can seven states, 29 federally recognized tribes and part of Mexico? Everybody who gets water from the Colorado set aside self-interest and try to work together. You’re listening to what next, TBD I’m Lizzie O’Leary, and I’m talking with Abrahm Lustgarten from ProPublica about the water shortage on the Colorado River.

S4: You talked a little bit about the negotiations between these different states and stakeholders. What are those

S2: potentially going to look like? And I guess I wonder

S4: who has the most power in these negotiations?

S5: So California is a huge player. It uses something like a third of the river, and it uses most of its water rights to grow those fruits and vegetables in Southern California, in the Imperial Valley. For a lot of really complicated reasons, and partially because California is that entity that holds the most leverage and the most power. California has largely shielded itself from some of the cutbacks that we’re starting to see now. It’s done that historically, and it’s managed to kind of perpetuate that into the present moment that makes California a real powerhouse going into negotiations going forward. But it also puts California kind of in the crosshairs. I think Nevada and Arizona in particular, but also the upper basin northern states have all made really significant sacrifices. They’ve made blood, so to speak, through these processes. And I think that they all hope and believe that it’s time for California to feel more of that pain. So, you know, a lot of these future discussions, I think while nothing certain are really going to focus on California.

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S4: You’re making me think of an anecdote in a story you wrote in 2015 of a tunnel that Las Vegas built basically to tunnel

S2: down to water to look out for itself. Are there incentives for these seven states and the cities there to work together? Or are there just power struggles?

S5: It’s a little bit of both. You know, the incentive to work together is that, you know, should any one party completely decimate this resource, all parties lose out. Everybody needs the water and they have, you know, a mutual beneficial interest in preserving that water. But ultimately, these are separate power centers with their separate individual constituencies that they have to serve. And that’s what the the Las Vegas example tells us. It’s a classic example of the water levels of Lake Mead or dropping, and as they drop past certain thresholds, the river and the infrastructure there will no longer be able to provide water and power to all of the people who share that resource. It will literally drop to a level that means that it cannot flow past the Hoover Dam and it cannot make it to California or Arizona downstream. But what Las Vegas did is basically said, should that ever happen? We’re going to have another way out, and they built what amounts to a drain hole in the bottom of the lake. They built their own pipeline that comes in at a lower level and gives the city of Las Vegas a way to continue to remove water only for itself from Lake Mead should it no longer be able to flow to Arizona and California downstream.

S4: I think like a lot of climate change related problems, this can feel really intractable. If you’re just a person listening and thinking like, I don’t want to be a part of this, but but I don’t know how to do anything that makes a difference on the margins. Are there things that an individual can do?

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S5: Well, here’s one that’s, you know, that I wrote about in my story. And this is perhaps farfetched to some. But because of how much water is used to grow alfalfa, to feed cattle to provide meat. The research suggests that if Americans stopped eating meat just one day a week, you know, sort of a meatless Mondays kind of thing. That alone would translate to a savings of water equivalent to the entire flow of the river. You know where that ever to happen that would solve the West’s water problems in its entirety for a long time to come?

S4: You know, I started this interview by asking you if you if you felt like a Cassandra. I guess I wonder as someone who’s been reporting on this for a long time. Do you ever feel hopeful or do you just feel depressed?

S5: Well, you know, I report on all things climate, and it becomes difficult to separate the water scarcity issues in the Colorado River Basin from water scarcity issues across the country, from all of the other really significant impacts that we’re seeing from climate change. And in the context of the big picture, it’s hard to hard to stay hopeful. But when you drill down into specific issues, I think there’s lots to be done and that can still make a big difference, whether that’s, you know, reducing emissions, which still presents an enormous opportunity to make the pain that we’re all going to experience in the future a lot less impactful, but also in terms of water usage itself. You know, I look at the Colorado River Basin and there is a lot of water still to work with, and there’s so much inefficiency that I think that there is enormous opportunity to recalibrate how that water is used and make it last a whole lot longer without having this kind of devastating impact on people’s lives in that region that many people are afraid of now.

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S2: Abrahm Lustgarten, thank you very much.

S5: Thank you so much for having me.

S2: Abrahm Lustgarten is a senior investigative reporter at ProPublica. All right. That is it for us today. TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks and edited by Tony Bosch and Alison Benedict. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer for Slate Podcasts. TBD is part of the larger What Next family, and it’s also part of future tense partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. And I cannot recommend strongly enough that you go back and listen to Thursday’s episode of What’s Next. Slate’s Ayman Ismail talks about what it was like to grow up as an American Muslim in the shadow of 911. What next? We’ll be back next week. I’m Lizzie O’Leary. Thanks for listening.