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Colorado Crisis: America's Great River Dwindles in Drought


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

The Colorado River drains much of the west and southwest of this country, from the high peaks of the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California. Last year, when we focused on the Colorado in a special broadcast from the Aspen Institute, drought had reduced the mighty river to a trickle in places. Now, this year's expected to be worse, and federal officials had summoned water agency officials, environmentalists, farmers and Indian tribal leaders from seven states to a meeting next week in San Diego to discuss conservation.

If you work or live along the Colorado River, tell us how the drought affects your life and your work. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Joining us on the phone from the Roaring Fork Valley in Colorado is writer and photographer Peter McBride, the author of "The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict," and one of our guests in that broadcast last year. Nice to have you back on the program.

PETER MCBRIDE: Nice to be here, Neal. (technical difficulties)

CONAN: What's changed over the past year?

MCBRIDE: Well, we had a very dry (technical difficulties) this year, and we've actually had a late snowpack. So what's slightly different where I am (technical difficulties) and we're back up to about an average snowpack. But everywhere else, beyond (technical difficulties) is significantly drier. I was just looking at the large reservoir, I mean, even like Powell and they're both at, right at 47, 48 percent, and not much water flowing their way soon; a little bit from here (technical difficulties) Rockies, but not elsewhere.

CONAN: And the implications of that - well, last year, we were talking with people who use the river for so many different purposes; for agriculture, for drinking water, for recreation. And it seemed that more and more were being put out of joint.

MCBRIDE: Yeah. I think we're getting to a situation where we'll be facing deficiencies in the river and whole basin in different ways. And the big question is how we're going to address it and on whose shoulders that these are going to lie. Is it going to be recreation? Is it going to be agriculture, which actually takes the lion's share of the water. Or is going to be everybody? And I think what (technical difficulties) from throughout the basin and all the water managers is that, basically, it's going to be those who have money, those that can pay are going to get water.

CONAN: I'm going to talk here for just a minute. We're going to hang up and try to redial you so we can see if we can get a better connection, Pete, and so we can understand better what you have to say.

The Colorado River and its many tributaries, of course, they stretch up all the way to, well, northern Wyoming and into Montana as they drain southward and westward of the Rocky Mountain. The Roaring Fork Valley where Pete McBride is joining us from, that's part of the tributaries of the Colorado River, the Green River, and all those other - the Gila River, all flow south and west and east to - into that mighty river, flows to the Grand Canyon. Of course, it provides, as he said, water for two enormous reservoirs that are so important to places like Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

And the agricultural purposes that he talked about, I think something like 15 percent of this country's agricultural product - its entire output - is irrigated by water from the Colorado River. So this is an enormous agricultural investment in this country, and its enormous industrial investment as well. Those reservoirs that we talk about, Lake Mead, for example, well, the electrical output from those dams provide much of the electricity for places like Las Vegas, of course, and then downstream, even on to Los Angeles. So this is an incredibly important resource for, well, everybody in the Intermountain West.

Just about everybody has to do with the Colorado River, as these various agencies are going to be meeting next week in San Diego to try to work out conservation. And, of course, well, conservation is what everybody else has to do to try to get the river up to normal. The agricultural people say, we have reasons to keep our irrigation. We need that to provide our crops for the American public. And do we have Pete McBride back on the line? All right. We're trying to get him on a new connection. And in the meantime, we'll keep nattering on. Pete, can you hear us?

MCBRIDE: I can hear you perfectly. Can you hear me?

CONAN: Yes, that's much better, Pete, and I'm sorry to have driven you away there. We're talking about various meetings, and these meetings are to discuss conservation. I know you just came from one in Los Angeles.

MCBRIDE: I did. It was fascinating. And what I heard there echoed by many is that what's so interesting is water is the - probably the least valued of one of our commodities. We pay more for our cell phone. We pay more for our cable than we do water. And, of course, we need water to live, and everyone expects to get it for free. But what's getting so challenging is the infrastructure around it. For instance, Las Vegas has recently spent a billion dollars to build a new intake valve, because their intakes are so dangerously close to the water level at Lake Mead. So all these areas in the basin are facing huge economic challenges around getting water. And, of course, the rivers are facing the same challenge, as well as keeping the water.

CONAN: And as we mentioned conservation, everybody's in favor of conservation when it's the other person that's being asked to conserve.

MCBRIDE: Exactly. And it's always easy to point the finger downstream. There is some good news since I spoke with you last summer, though. There is an amendment that recently happened between Mexico and the U.S. It's called Minute 319. And it's a new agreement with the U.S. and Mexican government to bring a little bit of water back to the Delta as a pilot program. So on the conservation element, that has some potential good news. It also enables Mexico to store water in Lake Mead, which has an indirect benefit to Las Vegas, by keeping the water levels higher for those intake valves. So there are some things happening, and I think the real good news of Minute 319 is that it is a symbol of cooperation, which is going to be the key to getting us out of this dire drought situation, I think.

CONAN: Pete McBride mentioned water to the Delta of the Colorado River. One of the haunting pictures in his book, "Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict," is the parched Delta of the Colorado River where it's, I guess, supposed to flow into the Gulf of California. And, well, there's nothing there but baked mud. In the meantime, we want to get some callers in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Kate is on the line with us from Durango, Colorado.


CONAN: Hi, there.

GREENBERG: My name is Kate Greenberg. I'm with the National Young Farmers' Coalition. We are a national organization supporting beginning farmers from coast to coast. And I'm here in Durango, representing farmers across the Colorado River Basin. So this is a very pertinent issue to us, which I know you've been discussing. And, Pete, I just want to say thank you for your work on the Colorado River. And as an organization, we support conservation of our crucial water resources here in the West, and really hope that we can work together as farmers and consumers in cities and rural communities to conserve the Colorado River.

CONAN: Is that one of the things you try to teach young farmers, how to conserve, how to use that water better?

GREENBERG: You know, the thing with young and beginning farmers these days is that we're already inclined toward conversation. We tend to use water-efficient irrigation systems and really look for soil health and other management techniques to improve water efficiency. So it's definitely on our radar.

CONAN: Kate, thanks very much, and good luck.

GREENBERG: Thank you.

CONAN: Pete McBride, is water wasted in the Colorado River?

MCBRIDE: I believe it is. There are plenty areas where we could be more efficient. And I grew up with an agricultural background in Colorado, so I'm a supporter of ag. But I think ag takes about 70 to 80 percent of the river, and we can find much greater efficiencies with that. My big questions around that are: What are the most important crops we should be using that water towards? We want to eat locally. But, for instance, we grow a lot of cotton in the Colorado River Basin. Could we be growing that cotton elsewhere, where water isn't such - in such shortage?

And I think just to add on to that, what I think I don't hear very often is: Have we reached the carrying capacity for the Southwest in terms of water? And I don't hear people raise that. Everyone either thinks we have enough water and we can find more efficiencies and more infrastructure to solve this problem, or we're just going to start augmenting through desalinization or piping in water from other rivers. And I just wonder if that's always - if we need to start addressing the population.

CONAN: And the population which continues to grow, that it's dependent on the Colorado River. Let's get Doug on the line. Doug's with us from Ouray in Colorado.

DOUG: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. My point has to do with a contradiction I see. I've lived outside of Ouray, along the Smith Creek Ditch for 12, 13 years now. And when we bought our house, we also acquired an 1889 water right. Our ditch is over 100 years old. It's carried about the same amount of water since the last rights were granted in 1926.

And then a few years ago, a neighbor below me who doesn't really live in the county - he just owns property here - he bought some water rights. He had new water rights created by the court, and his capacity is about five times what mine is. And I have ample to supply my garden and orchard, and I have water left over. So he's bought up this incredible water right, had it created out of thin air and money. And I just wanted to point out, that's an interesting dynamic. When we're talking about drought, I think my neighbor has positioned himself for an investment. It's certainly not used for agriculture or things like that on his land.

CONAN: Can those sorts of things be transferred? Can he sell that water?

DOUG: I imagine he can. I can sell mine.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much, Doug.

DOUG: You're welcome. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: And let's see if we can go to - this is Kelly, Kelly, another caller from Colorado, in Avon, Colorado.

KELLY: Hi. I am actually a landscaper up in, I guess, at the top of the food chain in the Vail area. And oddly enough, we're rained out today. But I just wanted to comment that we are up here. We're actually going in the opposite direction of where we should be going. We have an unincorporated town that's 10 miles west of Vail. And oddly enough, they have three new roundabouts that they just switched from xeriscaping drought tolerant to installing sod and perennials, because the locals complained that they didn't like the xeriscaping.

CONAN: Right.

KELLY: And we see this all the time here. So up here, we're going totally opposite.

CONAN: That's interesting. And, it's - Peter McBride, everybody along the way - Kelly, thanks very much for the call - seems to feel that, you know, I've got mine.

MCBRIDE: Yeah. It's a problem everywhere. I'm saddened to hear about that change of direction of xeriscaping - smartscaping, as it's called in some places. I think, at the end of the day, we're all going to have to do that, and we're going to need maybe a little bit of gentle nudge to do it, maybe with price structuring, tier structuring and prices. The more you use, the more you spend. And if we don't, we're going to basically run this so dry, it's - we're going to run it till the taps don't run. And then maybe that'll create the change we really need.

CONAN: The crisis that will focus people's minds.

MCBRIDE: Exactly. I think there is some awareness, though, that's spreading throughout the whole region. I see it with the public. Of course, some are looking for investment and whatnot. But water is so short everywhere. There's some interesting models, though, happening. There's a group out of Denver that's working with agricultural ranchers and whatnot to donate their water rights back to the stream on a one-year basis if they're in a drought situation, and they'll get paid back for their potential crop, and won't lose their water rights.

American rivers listed the Colorado River this year as the most endangered river in the country to try to raise awareness. And I'm starting to see the public starting to get it more and more. So I think there is some positive. And we all have to realize we're all users. It's not just those downstream, or the ranchers or whatever.

CONAN: Writer and photographer Peter McBride, thanks very much for your time today.

MCBRIDE: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.