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ProPublica Documents The West's Water Crisis In 'Killing The Colorado'


Lake Mead was created back in the 1930s when the Hoover Dam captured the Colorado River. That river has since become the source of water for 40 million people in seven western states. Those states crafted a water plan nearly a century ago, one that seemed to promise endless water. Now a punishing drought has revealed the flaws of the plan. For more background, we reached Abrahm Lustgarten, a reporter for ProPublica whose ongoing series about the water crisis is called "Killing The Colorado." Good morning.


MONTAGNE: The drought is believed to be the main force behind the water crisis, but you have found in your series that the drought is only part of the story.

LUSTGARTEN: Right, from the very start, the states - they've been working with, essentially, the wrong numbers. Going back about 95 years, there's an agreement between the states, and they estimated how much water flowed through the river. And they divided up an amount that doesn't even exist. So in the nearly a century since then, they've continued to rely and build water budgets based on the amount of water that they don't actually have access to.

Beyond that, there's lots of ways in which the water is managed which seems to encourage its overuse. There's incentives to grow crops that use the most water; there's aspects of water law which force people to use as much as they can, even more than they need in many cases; and overall what I've heard from water experts is that there is an enormous amount of water in the Colorado River basin, but that the various states and entities don't manage it in a way that makes its use the most efficient it could be.

MONTAGNE: Well, you suggest, for instance, that water is going places that, had it not gone, it wouldn't have been needed; that is, cities that have grown up because they are able to get water that doesn't exist where they are.

LUSTGARTEN: Yeah, one of the pressures on the Colorado River is the very fast-growing cities, and many of those cities have planned for growth with the assumption that they can always get more water. Rather than securing their resources and then matching their growth to that, they have permitted new housing developments, new golf courses and so forth.

MONTAGNE: Out of the many examples, there's the example of Tucson which ends up having, more or less, a fake river sent down to it from the Colorado.

LUSTGARTEN: Yeah, so Tucson and Phoenix both depend on the 330-mile artificial canal that was built to carry 10 percent of the Colorado River's flow up over a mountain range and across most of the state of Arizona. That canal alone has essentially made the economic development of the state of Arizona possible. Cities like Tucson and Phoenix and Denver and Las Vegas and San Diego and Los Angeles and lots of smaller cities would look nothing like they do today were not for that artificial import of Colorado River water.

MONTAGNE: Your series is called "Killing The Colorado." Are states really killing the Colorado? Is there an absolute end to the kind of water that's been gotten out of that river?

LUSTGARTEN: Lake Mead is as sure a sign of that as anything. If the river is continually overused the way that it has been, that reservoir, the other reservoirs will continue to drop. If these states can figure out a way to use their water more efficiently, incentivize conservation, then they might be able to make the water that actually exists spread a whole lot further.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

LUSTGARTEN: Thank you for having me.

MONTAGNE: And that was ProPublica environmental reporter Abrahm Lustgarten. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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