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Colorado River, Lifeline Of The West, Sees Historic Water Shortage Declaration

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For the first time ever, the U.S. government declared a shortage on the Colorado River last week. That means states like Arizona that rely on the river for their water supply are seeing big cutbacks as a punishing drought continues in the west. The Colorado River and its tributaries are a lifeline to some 40 million people in multiple states, including in California, who rely on it for drinking water. The river also irrigates countless farms and generates lots of cheap hydropower. So a shortage on the Colorado is a big deal, and we wanted to hear more about that. We asked NPR's Kirk Siegler to talk us through it. He covers the West and has been reporting on the Colorado River for years.

Kirk, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

KIRK SIEGLER: For sure. Glad to be here.

MARTIN: So this shortage declaration was unprecedented. But I understand that it wasn't really a surprise. So tell me more about that. I mean, how big of a crisis is this?

BYLINE: Well, it is big, though not a surprise. As you say, a lot of people have been planning for this eventuality for years. I read it as, really, the latest indicator that climate change is making this drought that's been going on for 22 years even worse. And things are getting even more severe.

You know, fundamentally, overall, there's just less snow falling up in the Rocky Mountains, which, of course, feeds into the two biggest reservoirs, Lake Powell in Utah and the nation's largest reservoir, Lake Mead, near Las Vegas. And the moisture that we are getting, it's evaporating much quicker into these extremely dry soils. And you're seeing evaporation in the reservoirs as well. If you've had the chance to see Lake Mead recently, as I have, you know, its giant white bathtub rings behind the Hoover Dam - just alarming. And the lake has gone below the threshold set under federal law, meaning that these mandatory cuts are now triggered.

MARTIN: Well, you know, the pictures from Lake Mead are alarming. I mean, the latest numbers show the reservoir has dropped 130 feet since the year 2000. So tell me about what these cuts mean in practice.

BYLINE: Well, initially, most of the spotlight is on Arizona because it's going to be hit the hardest. Its water rights are junior to states like California downstream. So it's going to lose about a fifth of its entire share of Colorado River water. And drilling down even deeper, the brunt of the cuts for now are going to be shouldered by farmers, who are even lower on the priority list than cities there.

MARTIN: So that brings up an important distinction. The shortage doesn't mean across-the-board cuts of water to all Westerners, that there are winners and losers.

BYLINE: Right. So think of it like in any crisis where there's just not enough of a resource to go around, guess what? Money and power talks. Different cities and water utilities and people and states, for that matter, have different rights and different priorities on this very stressed Colorado River system. It's all based on history, politics and money. And it goes back to a century or more ago, when the states that share the Colorado negotiated this big compact, this agreement.

You know, back then, Michel, there were a lot fewer people in this region, for starters. And California got a lot of the priorities. So we have this hierarchy that many people don't think is fair. But it's what we have. And farmers in Arizona, they have a junior water right. So they have been planning for a shortage like this if it was ever declared. And they knew they'd be the first to get cut off, and now they're actually having to face that.

MARTIN: So - but let's keep going farther south. I mean, the Colorado River's natural course flows into Mexico. And communities there also depend on it. So what impact does this have on the Mexican side?

BYLINE: Well, it's Mexico, Arizona and Nevada. These are the three entities that are going to see the first round of cuts under this shortage. And Mexico will see about 5% of its river allotment cut. And that's a even thornier issue. You talk about tricky Western water issues. As you say, the river flows into Mexico, but it rarely flows into Mexico. And it certainly hasn't in the last couple of decades of this drought. So the fact that Mexico's seeing a cut is a tricky question to answer because frequently, Mexico gets the shortest end of the stick.

MARTIN: So - well, you've been telling us that it's been known that the shortage was coming. It's been predicted. It won't be the last. How are people in the Colorado River basin responding to this? What are they doing?

BYLINE: Well, there's actually quite a bit going on. And there's, you know, rightly, a lot of attention on conservation efforts, water recycling in these desert cities with their huge suburbs and their golf courses. Look at Las Vegas. It has actually dramatically cut its consumption since the 1980s, even as its population has risen so much.

But, you know, the story here continues to be about farming and industrial agriculture. Remember that the farmers still take the bulk of the water from the river. Like, about 70% of all of the available water on this system goes to agriculture.

I talked to Mark Squillace about this. He's an expert on the river and a law professor at the University of Colorado. And for him, you know, the shortage is really the latest warning that something drastic needs to be done to help farmers switch away from all of the water-intensive crops they've been growing in the desert, like cotton and alfalfa.

MARK SQUILLACE: In Southern California, they still grow a lot of alfalfa. And a good part of that alfalfa is shipped to China and - because of demand there for alfalfa. And it strikes me that that is not the best use of our water resources in the basin.

BYLINE: So, Michel, just consider what could be lying ahead in terms of all-out water wars over scarcity when - you know, we saw the new census data coming out this month showing Phoenix the city as one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation. There's just not a lot of this resource to go around.

MARTIN: So the cities need more of the water. They need more of the water. They want more of the water. But if the farmers don't get the water, they can't grow food. Is there any way to avoid an all-out - I don't know any other way to put it, but a water war between urban and rural areas?

BYLINE: Well, I would say in covering this for many years, it is interesting to see that lately, you're seeing these diametrically opposed sides actually talking to one another like you wouldn't have seen. That just gets to the - you know, the scale of the crisis. So that's a positive. There are talks going on. And there are, you know, discussions about how to use water better.

Everyone is interested in cutting waste. I think that's fair to say. And one idea that is on the table of late is for these cities to pay farmers to build more efficient irrigation systems rather than just flooding their fields. But, you know, I think you're still going to see more attempts by cities, where the money and the power is, to go after rural water. I mean, this is the history of the West.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Kirk Siegler, who covers the western U.S. Kirk, thank you so much for walking us through this really important and complicated story.

BYLINE: You're welcome. Glad to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.