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The Thirst Gap examines how to live with less water on the Colorado River

A forest of dead cottonwood trees line a flowing creek in one of the side canyons near Lake Powell on July 6, 2022. The trees were submerged by the reservoir's water until recently.
Alex Hager
A forest of dead cottonwood trees line a flowing creek in one of the side canyons near Lake Powell on July 6, 2022. The trees were submerged by the reservoir's water until recently.

The podcast The Thirst Gap produced by KUNC, examines how the Southwest is adapting to water shortages as climate change causes the region to warm up and dry out.

The series asks how can we learn to live with less on the Colorado River?

Maeve Conran speaks with the podcast host Luke Runyon.

Maeve Conran:  You essentially take us down the Colorado River and we meet various different people who were impacted directly by what is going on.

But to begin with, your series begins with this, you give us some history and some context.

So take us back to just over a century ago, to the creation of the Colorado River Compact.

Luke Runyon: The kind of foundational agreement of the Colorado River was signed in 1922, and this was an agreement that was between the seven US states that rely on the Colorado River, that's Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California.

They came together to basically divide up the river's water.

Maeve Conran: Well, of course, the huge news about the Colorado River is this recent agreement that was signed with some of the lower basin states, where certain water users, irrigators, farmers, ranchers, they're going to be paid essentially to use less water.

And you meet an irrigator or farmer in one of the upper basin states in one of your episodes.

It's the second episode of Thirst Gap, and we meet Troy Waters and his son Calvin, who's getting ready to take over the family farm in Western Colorado.

And just for some context, farmers and ranchers use the vast majority of the river's water.

So when you met Troy and Calvin, I suppose, tell us their story and how that illustrates some of the complexity about asking water users, particularly farmers and ranchers, to use less water.

Luke Runyon: For sure. So Troy and Calvin farm near Fruita, Colorado, in the Grand Valley.

They're on this large irrigation system that draws water directly from the Colorado River.

And they are experimental, like they like having some different crops, they're not, you know, very traditional farmers in that way, they like to try new crops, they like to try new things.

And several years ago there were these conservation programs that were tried out in the Grand Valley and Troy and Calvin basically made a a risk calculation.

They were like, 'okay, if someday we are going to be mandated to use less water, how would we go about doing that on our farm? And how are we gonna get the best deal in that scenario? How are we gonna make sure that we're made whole if we have to use less water?'

So they signed up for some of these experimental programs that basically paid them not to farm and, you know, it sounds like an easy thing, you pay a farmer not to farm, pretty simple, but it had sort of all of these unintended consequences and these knock-on effects that really turned them off.

You know, they were made whole financially, but then they had these kind of big dirt patches that were just sitting out their farm, and I think it took kind of a mental toll on them as well.

You know, they're farmers, they want a farm that's like in their blood, it's their livelihood.

"If you're gonna pay me to set ground aside, it needs to be the revenue I'm losing off that ground that year, plus the revenue I'm gonna lose for the next two or three years on the reduced yields," said Troy Waters.

And if you're being paid not to farm, you're being paid not to do the thing that you love to do.

So I think that really stuck in my mind. It's like, oh, you know, it's really easy from a policy standpoint to say, 'okay, we're just gonna pay these people not to do this thing, not to use water,' but on the ground, you know, it has all sorts of other consequences.

Maeve Conran: Well, in the podcast's final episode, which has just been released, essentially we are brought all the way to the end of the river to Mexico.

And it's interesting because the last miles of the river, that stretch has actually been dry for many years, and I know some people might think, 'well, is that the future for further upstream in the Colorado River?'

Tell us about that, because I think people don't always understand that the river itself doesn't always reach the sea.

Luke Runyon: Yeah, the river basically comes to an end right at the US Mexico border.

It hits a dam that's right on the border and the rest of what's left, because it's been heavily diverted in the United States for use in California and Arizona, this kind of small narrow trickle hits the border and then is diverted into Mexico for use in the Mexicali Valley, which is another really intensive agriculture region in Mexico.

And so the final kind of a hundred miles, what you'd consider the Colorado River Delta or its estuary is for the most part dry.

But there are efforts to bring water back to the channel, to the kind of historic river channel in Mexico.

And this is because of agreements between the US and Mexico that have been agreed to over the past decade.

We had the most recent one that was signed in 2017, and it was really kind of a historic moment in that the US and Mexico agreed to set aside some amount of water for the environment, for the ecosystems benefit.

I haven't seen anything like that before between two countries agreeing that this river has an environmental value, and that we shouldn't just dry it up, we should, you know, be setting aside some water to restore the river channel.

And so that's what's happening now, there are efforts to bring the water back to the channel, grow wildlife habitat, allow migratory birds to have a place to stop.

Beavers are returning to different parts of the river channel and it's, you know, it still has a long way to go to, towards ever being some semblance of its former self, this vast estuary, but at least in some pockets there's change happening.

Maeve Conran: Well, ultimately, what do you hope listeners will take away from this series, especially in the light of that recent agreement made with the lower basin states?

Luke Runyon: I want people to take away the fact that really the future of this river basin is learning to live with less water.

You know, I think sometimes we can get really fixated on the technological fixes to water supply challenges in the Southwest, whether that be, you know, desalination or water recycling.

Those things can help, and they'll alleviate some pressure in different parts of the watershed, but the solution that people are focused on that is really going to get us out of this problem is reducing our demand for water, and learning how to, you know, have thriving cities, have thriving farms, but using less water in the process.

And I think that that's possible, and I hope that sort of hopeful or somewhat optimistic take will come through in some of the episodes.

It's like we as a society have agency here.

This isn't something that's happening to us.

We have the ability to make some decisions, hard decisions about how we go about using less water, but I think we can do it well.

Maeve Conran: The Thirst Gap: learning to live with the less on the Colorado River is a six-part podcast series produced by KUNC and hosted by Luke Runyon.

Luke, thank you so much for talking with us today.

Luke Runyon: Thank you.

This story was shared with KSUT via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including KSUT.
Copyright 2023 Aspen Public Radio.

Maeve Conran
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