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.
The only thing that has kept the river states from turning on each other is that the upper basin states of Utah and Colorado, until very recently, have never come close to using their full water allocation from the river. The lower basin states—Nevada, Arizona and California—use pretty much every drop [of their share] now. If the upper basin states want to claim their full share of water it won’t be as easy as once thought. I think that’s why you hear Colorado considering a pipeline and Utah thinking about a pipeline from Lake Powell. They are trying to get a straw in the river before there is not enough to drink from.
How are these issues being covered? What’s missing in the coverage?
Right now the biggest area we need to pay attention to is the effect of drought and climate change. This year it is looking like we are going to see a fairly significant drop on the Colorado. Drought and climate change are probably going to limit the water supply, and if they are, how are the various local water managers going to handle that?
The other big one—an issue throughout the West—is going to be the connection between water and energy. That has its own connection to climate change. Most of the power sources that buy electricity in the western states rely on water to some extent, whether it is coal plants that generate power with steam. Here in Arizona, a nuclear power plant requires a significant amount of water.
Water is used to generate electricity and electricity is used to move water around. Because the western states are so wide open, we have to use power to move water around. In Arizona, we have the Central Arizona Project with a 333-mile canal. They essentially had to build a coal-fired power plant to move the water from near Lake Havasu to Phoenix and Tucson. That’s from the Navajo power plant near Page, Arizona. There is a huge debate about whether the pollution from that power plant is becoming too excessive. That goes back to the issues of climate change and how we are going to generate electricity. Already California climate change regulations are requiring the state to divest itself from all coal-fired power plants. So this power plant that moves water around the West is probably going to be in a little bit of trouble of its own.
If power prices go up for whatever reasons—because they have to build new plants or put pollution controls on them—then the price of water is going to go up. If water shortages drive up the price of water, it will drive up the price of power. That connection is going to be critical.
What about some basic stories?
Tell about water use. Most people don’t know: (a) where their water comes from, and; (b) who uses it.
I used to get calls from newcomers asking about the big canals that run through Phoenix and what they were for. I would say, “That’s your water.” People would be stunned. For water reporters, doing those kind of stories could lead to other stories. Maybe farmers are allowed to grow alfalfa where there really isn’t a market for it. It could be golf courses that haven’t switched to using reclaimed water. If you go back to those basic questions, readers won’t be bored—they want to be aware of this.