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?

There may come a point when cities don’t have a choice to have people use less water. In Arizona, a while back, Tucson used water rates to get people to use less water and they had some success. That may be because Tucson is a little different from the rest of Arizona. Here in Phoenix, when water conservation folks suggest people may not need as much green grass and lush landscaping, people don’t take it very well.

How do you make connections between water issues and what goes on in the statehouse and western legislatures?

In most cases, the legislature and governor will have to become involved at the top level with various interstate water agreements. Back in 2007, when Colorado River states had to approve a plan to deal with future shortages, some or all of the elements had to go through legislatures. When I first started, I got to know the members of the committee in the House and Senate who oversaw water issues. In the West, there is usually at least one committee in the Legislature that deals with water. It is the old fashioned get to know committee members and track bills through the legislature. Also, most of the big water providers have lobbyists.

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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.