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.

You mentioned the changing use of water is an important story as well. For example, the West was once dominated by agricultural water use, now that is shifting as urban centers grow.

It is, and in that case you have to go all the way down to the industrial and residential users, especially in the growing urban areas—Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Denver. The cities are becoming the biggest water users. Right now, there isn’t a lot of incentive for municipalities to encourage people to use less water. Here in Phoenix—I think it is similar in other parts of the West—city water departments are generally self-sufficient. They operate on money they collect from water customers. As a result, they don’t have a lot of incentive to encourage conservation. If, all of the sudden, users reduced their use significantly, then the revenue goes down. That is a story that is undertold.

A reporter could dig into the records of the local water department and figure out how they determine their water costs. They could work with their CAR [computer-assisted reporting] person and do some number crunching and figure out what would really happen if they had a drought. What would that do to the water department’s revenue and are those sorts of numbers a problem for them?

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.