Q&A: Shaun McKinnon, veteran water reporter

An Arizona Republic reporter and self-described "water geek" on how to cover western water issues

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.

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?

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.