PROVO, UT — Water issues may not be the sexy beat to which young journalists first aspire, but here in the southwest, such coverage is critical—and, unfortunately, receding, says Arizona Republic senior reporter and self-described “water geek” Shaun McKinnon.

“Water reporters are definitely an endangered group of people,” said McKinnon, who has covered water for more than 14 years for the Republic and the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “It’s too bad because we are getting into this time when it’s probably a bigger issue than it ever has been. We need people who are out there watching and making sure everyone knows what is going on. “

I recently talked to McKinnon, who moved to the Republic’s special projects team a year ago, about why water policy remains so critical to the people who live here and about the nuances of covering water in the West—where the Colorado River winds 1,450 miles through several states, generates power and supplies water to millions here, was last month named the nation’s “most endangered river” by the conservation group American Rivers and, by some estimates, will reach a water-use deficit by 2033, no matter the conservation efforts. What follows is an edited version of our phone conversation.

What are some of the basic documents, websites and other sources reporters can use to cover western water issues?

In the West, unfortunately, you have to be a student of history to some degree to understand anything beyond covering municipal water, because our water is so bound up in the Bureau of Reclamation, the Colorado River Compact, and various other agreements. [Much of the water that feeds seven western states—from thirsty western urban areas to rural farms—is tied up in the Colorado River Compact, signed in 1922 by the states to “provide for the equitable division and apportionment of the use of the waters of the Colorado River System.” The compact divided the river basin into an Upper Division—Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming—and a Lower Division—Arizona, California, Nevada.]

One of the places you have to start is the Bureau of Reclamation. If you go to their website, they have a lot of great information, including all of the various agreements, from the 1922 compact to the big deal they brokered back in 2007 [in which the states agreed to more or less share equally if water allocations are cut].

You really have to start there, and then you have to get to know who is the primary water distributor wherever you are. It is not necessarily going to be the local water department. Here in Phoenix, we have the Salt River Project and the Central Arizona Project. They are wholesalers, in effect. You have to get to know those.

Really for me, once I had that background, the best education I had was to get out there. This is one of those beats. Talk to the people who are moving the water around—the irrigation districts and the water attorneys. It is working a beat the old fashioned way by getting to know people. One of the things I have found over the years is people who work in this big western water community love to talk and will be very patient with you as long as you have taken the time to educate yourself.

Studies show the amount of water collected and moving downstream in the Colorado River—a major water lifeline for Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and California—is shrinking. Why is that such a big deal to the public?

Since about 1999, the runoff on the Colorado has been below the long-term average more often than it has been either at or above average. So far, that could be an indication of a short-term drought or a longer-term cycle where things may recover. The one fact you can’t deny is that the river was divided up among states at a time [back in 1922] when the Colorado River was running at unusually high levels. We proportioned the water thinking we had a lot more than we have had since then. Even if the Colorado River runs at or below normal, at some point you are going to start running short. There isn’t as much water as we thought.

Joel Campbell is CJR's correspondent for Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. An associate journalism professor at Brigham Young University, he is the past Freedom of Information chairman for the Society of Professional Journalists and was awarded the Honorary Publisher Award by the Utah Press Association for his advocacy work on behalf of journalists in the Utah Legislature. Follow him on Twitter @joelcampbell.