Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and you're listening to The Takeaway. Thanks for joining us. Now, take a listen.
Bidtah Becker: First of all, everybody grab a map.
Melissa: That's the voice of Bidtah Becker. Now, you're going to meet her in a moment, but you will hear her suggestion to grab a map throughout the show today because we are bringing you stories from several different locations. Do you have your map? Good. Now, look at the western United States where Colorado borders Utah, which is hugged by Nevada to its west and Arizona to its south, follow that western edge of Arizona as it kisses California, all the way into the bordering nation of Mexico, and you've just tracked the hardest working river in the country, the Colorado River. The Colorado River is responsible for 90% of water for Las Vegas, more than 80% for Tucson, and big portions of the supply for Los Angeles and Denver.
The Colorado River supplies water for 40 million people, irrigates 6 million acres of land, and generates more than 4,000 megawatts of hydropower from its dams. The Colorado fuels a $1.4 trillion annual economy, and without it, none of the major cities of the southwestern United States could even exist. Also, the Colorado River is drying up. The Colorado feeds Lake Mead, the nation's largest man-made reservoir. Lake Mead is now only 35% full, that's the lowest level since it was created nearly 100 years ago. Last week, the federal government declared the first-ever water shortage for the Colorado River and mandatory cutbacks began immediately. The effects will be far-reaching. Joining me today to explain how we got here and what's ahead is Bidtah Becker, an attorney with the Navajo tribal utility authority. Bidtah, thank you for being here.
Bidtah: My pleasure. It's an honor.
Melissa: Also with me is Brad Udall, senior water and climate scientist at Colorado State University. Brad, Welcome to The Takeaway.
Brad Udall: Melissa, great to see you and Bidtah also.
Melissa: Now, Brad, before we get into all of the details, can you just begin by helping our listeners to understand what is the importance of the Colorado River to this region and also maybe more broadly?
Brad: The river supplies water to 40 million different Americans in seven states and their two nations, and importantly, the are 30 tribes that rely on this water. It goes to every major city in the American Southwest. It's 90% of Las Vegas's supply, 50% of Phoenix, 50% of Denver. Four and a half million acres of irrigated ag depend on this river. It's really hard to overstate how important it is to this part of the country.
Melissa: Brad, walk us back a bit. How did we get here?
Brad: You can go back 100 years if you want to when the Colorado River Compact was signed in 1922, and perhaps that's the logical place to start here. The river was allocated at that time between the upper basin, the four states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, and the lower basin, Arizona, California, and Nevada. Importantly, there were a number of players not at the table when the river was allocated. The environment was not at the table, [chuckles] the tribes were not at the table, recreation was not at the table.
What they did back then was using, frankly, pretty crummy data over-allocated the river, and this didn't matter for close to 100 years. Call it 80 years, it didn't matter because we didn't have the capacity to actually take all that water out of the river. Starting around 2000, we actually did have it. Something else happened in 2000, which is climate change. It started to affect the flow of the River. Since 2000, the flow is actually down 20%. Between overuse and our reduction in water supplies, we're now at a critical crunch point. What's happened since 2000, the two largest reservoirs in United States, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, they were 90% full. Flash forward to now, they're 30% full. We've drained 60% of them, that's two years worth of flow. We're on our way, frankly, to drain them completely if we're not careful here. There's a whole series of challenges around this, including the tribal one, which is figuring out how to do right by them, many of whom have never had a water right. There's an enormous set of issues here to resolve.
Melissa: Bidtah, maybe you can also dig in on the same question and help us to understand the critical significance particularly to indigenous communities.
Bidtah: We're talking about drinking, ag water, all types of water use, plus energy use. The reason I point that out is because, for many tribal communities Navajo included, we have regrettably a high poverty rate. The hydropower is the cheapest power we can buy. When hydropower gets threatened and then we have to go out and purchase higher-cost power, we're just further impacting the challenges that our people are facing, all at a time of COVID-19. One practical issue is that there's still a high level of water insecurity among tribal people living in the basin. For instance, on the Navajo Nation, it's estimated 30% to 40% of homes lack piped water, which is one of the reasons there was a high outbreak of COVID-19 in Indian communities. The other aspect to raise is the spiritual, religious, and cultural nature of the river. That is also impacted. It's such a cultural core of many, many people who've lived in this area forever.
Melissa: Maybe give us even just one example so that our listeners can understand if they're not in these communities what that sense of something that was forever being critically threatened. What that means.
Bidtah: First of all, everybody grab a map, and look at the border between Arizona and California. There are five tribes along that stretch of the river who have long lived there, and one of them is named the Cocopah tribe, but the way they tell their story is the center of their universe is their river. The center of everything they believe in is the river. When the river dries up or goes away, you're taking out the center of their being. What I also want to emphasize is it's not just true for people living in the United States as Brad mentioned, it also serves Mexico, and so the river for a long time has dried up in Mexico. Not only does it affect modern economics which are so critical to daily life, but it also affects just that center of being one's purpose of life.
Melissa: Brad, help our listeners to understand a little bit about the kind of day-to-day, what will the cutbacks mean so that as we're looking at this long arc, as we're thinking about the capacity for survival, and maybe an equitable survival, what will these impending cutbacks mean?
Brad: The first cutbacks are primarily imposed on the state of Arizona. Over the last 100 years, an enormously complex body of law and Supreme Court decisions and regulations have been put in place. Those rules called the Law of the River for some odd historical reasons impose on Arizona the vast majority of these initial cuts. It means a number of farmers in central Arizona won't actually get water two years from now. Next year they'll maybe get half of what they were going to get otherwise. They're going to go back to pumping groundwater, which is completely unsustainable in Arizona and that's a whole nother problem.
As this continues though, and I think we have every reason to believe these cuts will continue out into the future, other entities are going to receive cutbacks as well, including ultimately the state of California. Ag users use about 70% of the water in the basin and they're going to face the initial hits on this. That's one aspect of this. The reservoirs, unfortunately, are going to continue to drop to very low levels, including as Bidtah hinted at earlier, probably loss of power production out of the upper reservoir Lake Powell maybe as early as next year. There's a whole series of cascading impacts, including what likely are going to be some permanent, not just temporary, permanent shortage reduction, shortages, and deliveries to users. Municipal users, at least for a while are going to get off and not face too much of an issue here. But in the long run, I have to tell you, I think we're going to get the rethink again how we're using every last drop of this river.
Melissa: I'm actually a little worried to hear you say, Brad, that endpoint consumers may not feel it right away because so many of the communities that the two of you have described, farmers, indigenous communities are the ones that oftentimes can be most easily forgotten, rendered invisible by our policymaking especially if my personal water bill isn't going up, if I'm not experiencing a personal shortage. Bidtah, to your point about maybe allowing a moment like this to also constitute a pivot, a head knocking together pivot for how we ought to be engaging. Are there ways that you would like to see a shared sacrifice in order to move us more swiftly towards a more equitable future?
Bidtah: I think shared sacrifice really begins with, as you were saying, institutions but also the individual recognizing their role in all of this. These issues aren't new as Brad is saying. These issues aren't new. Obviously, people have been preparing for this. I think that's the good news. There are a lot of good people who have been preparing for this. I think your question is how do we make this real for somebody living in Los Angeles or Albuquerque who still watering their lawn? Why do you have a lawn? I think if we can figure out a way to take the reality of COVID that hit everybody, even people who deny it, it hit them.
If policy makers can figure out a way to make that emotional connection, and I realize I'm being very lofty here. I think the actions of Congress infusing all of this funding because that's a huge positive step in the right direction. Meaning Congress is doing what it can to play its role by infusing funding, infusing some policy direction so people have the resources they need to focus on resilience. The language we use, Melissa, is less about sacrifice and more about resilience.
Melissa: Brad, I'm going to give you the last word on this.
Brad: People in cities are going to be asked to contribute to this, no question about it. In order to resolve this, everybody's at the table. We will need continued municipal conservation. I think what you're hinting at is a new ethic around water use and a real appreciation for what happens when you turn that tap on. Mostly when you turn the tap on now, you don't even think twice about it. When we ask people where their water comes from and they say the tap, well, yes, kind of, but not really. It comes from nature.
Nature is going to [unintelligible 00:12:14] last year, and ultimately, it's going to enforce upon us some fundamental changes for everybody. One good thing and I'll share some of Bidtah's optimism in the Colorado River basin is that there's a really good working group of people that has 100 years of working out issues. Especially over the last 20, a lot of cooperation, a lot of understanding. Here in this community, we understand what it means to take water away from farmers or what it means to ask Phoenix to conserve. That's where I get my optimism is the people that are working in this and they understand each other's sensitivities and needs.
Melissa: Brad Udall, is a senior water and climate scientist at Colorado State University and Bidtah Becker is an attorney with the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. Thank you both for being here and thank you both for shedding some light and optimism on a story that could feel very panic-driven. I appreciate that. Thank you.
Bidtah: Very welcome, Melissa.
Brad: My great pleasure to be with both of you.
[00:13:17] [END OF AUDIO]
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.