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The Colorado River water shortage is forcing tough choices in 7 states

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. This summer, officials of the U.S. Interior Department gave seven states in the American West an ultimatum - either come up with a voluntary agreement to curtail their use of water from the Colorado River, or the federal government will impose mandatory restrictions. Lake Mead, the reservoir created by the Hoover Dam on the Colorado, is now at just 25% of its capacity. Our guest, ProPublica investigative reporter Abrahm Lustgarten, says the water shortage facing the 40 million people who rely on the Colorado is an emergency but not a surprise. For decades, it's been clear the states were draining more from the Colorado than it could bear. And population growth and climate change have accelerated the problem.

Lustgarten joined us on FRESH AIR seven years ago to explain the causes of the water shortage and the threat it poses. We've asked him to come back for an update on the crisis and a look at what lies ahead. Abrahm Lustgarten is an environmental reporter at ProPublica, with a focus on climate change. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Scientific American, Wired, Salon and Esquire, among other publications. He's the author of two books, and his 2015 series on the causes of water scarcity in the American West was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Well, Abrahm Lustgarten, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You know, a lot of national disasters are really visible and dramatic - you know, wildfires and hurricanes. A water shortage is different, but things got really serious out west this summer. Are there ways that it became more visible? Are there clear signs something was really wrong?

ABRAHM LUSTGARTEN: Oh, yeah. I mean, if you live in the West or you visit the two largest reservoirs on the Colorado River system, which are Lake Powell and Lake Mead, it's abundantly clear that they're running out of water. Lake Mead has this famous bathtub ring, which is a chalky mark left by the high water mark. And it's now about 180 feet above the water level. And so if you visit the Hoover Dam, which now towers far above the water that's supposed to be, you know, abutting nearly the top of it, you see this enormous bathtub ring. And you just get this sense that the place has drained. And there's been all sorts of stories of old towns uncovered, boats that had long ago sunk uncovered and even dead bodies, murders in the Las Vegas area, people who had been, you know, disposed of in the reservoir suddenly coming back above the waterline. So it's really apparent that this is an unusual situation. And there's a sense of kind of urgency and, you know, a palpable sense of emergency when you visit those places.

DAVIES: Give us a sense of the scale of the Colorado River and its importance to the people in - I guess it's seven states and 29 federally recognized tribes. And water also goes to Mexico, too. What's - how important is that water?

LUSTGARTEN: Yeah, that's right. It's the most important source of water in the western United States. As you said, it, of course, is through seven states. It starts high in the Colorado Rockies and in Wyoming. And it courses all the way down to the Gulf of California between Baja and Mexico. And on the way, it passes through seven states. It covers 1,400 miles. And the waters that run through the Colorado River are a primary source of water for 40 million Americans. They support the lion's share of the Western agriculture, which includes a lot of vegetable production for the entire country. They support cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles and Denver, among many others. And it is an irreplaceable source of water that has sustained Western development for more than 100 years.

DAVIES: Now, the federal government this summer asked states to agree on voluntary reductions. How much - how big were those reductions? What was the scale of them?

LUSTGARTEN: Well, the suggestion by the federal government is that states agree to cut 2 to 4 million-acre feet in 2023. And acre feet is, you know, is the volume of water used to measure the Colorado. But just to give a sense of scale, the river is running at about 9 to 10 million-acre feet now and even in its best days ran at about 12 to 13 million-acre feet. So we're really talking about, you know, cutting 40- to 50% of current use on the Colorado River.

DAVIES: Wow. I guess it's no great surprise that this voluntary agreement didn't come together. So what's happening now? Are meaningful steps being taken to address this?

LUSTGARTEN: Well, the federal government has maintained a position of some optimism but also is kind of cloaking the talks that are still underway. So they're trying to portray the potential for progress. But anybody who watches the river might be, you know, cynical about the potential for that progress. This is simply an incredibly difficult agreement for these seven states to reach. It was difficult for them to agree how to split the river at the various points historically when they've had to do that, going all the way back to the original River Compact in 1922. And it's crucially difficult now.

The federal government has resisted. It's delayed its deadlines. It has allowed extra time for this agreement to be reached. But in order to reach an agreement for how we share the Colorado River going forward, the states will probably need to abandon everything that they've held to in the past about how they use that water, about which industries are supported by it and how cities are grown by it. It's really time to kind of go back to the drawing board. And part of what's been challenging is the states have sought to negotiate new agreements while essentially not giving up, you know, the things dearest to them in the present.

DAVIES: Wow. It really sounds like a Gordian knot of policy. Well, let's just talk a bit about how we got where we are and what some of the problems are with usage of the water there. I mean, we talked about this when you were on the show before. And, you know, you explained that all the way going back to the original pact on splitting up the Colorado in 1922, even then, they were splitting up more water than the river would actually generate. And it's gotten worse over time as there's been growth in agriculture, agriculture and cities, and climate change has exacerbated it. One of the problems that you've described is the way water rights are honored that have been in place for decades. There's kind of a seniority system which incentivizes, in some cases, farmers and others to waste water. You want to explain this?

LUSTGARTEN: Yeah, the water rights of the West are incredibly complex. And ultimately, they're governed by each state independently. But generally speaking, water rights are given to the first to arrive. And so they are ranked on a seniority basis. And if you were a farmer that arrived in Colorado in the 1800s, then you have higher seniority and access to greater water rights than, say, the city of Denver, which has grown, you know, in the latter part of the 20th century. And so that system across all of the states tends to give, you know, not just priority but really undue, you know, emphasis to the agricultural industry and to the ranches that, you know, cover that landscape.

Part of the water law that's pervasive across the West and especially in the upper basin, which includes Colorado, is a stipulation that your water rights are protected so long as you use them. And if you don't use them, then they could be jeopardized. They could be reapportion elsewhere as the need for conservation becomes more apparent. And so what has ended up happening is that water rights holders, those senior rights holders, will use the maximum allotment of water just to protect their legal rights to that water in perpetuity, whether they need all of that water or not. And in extreme cases, this was resulting in landowners in ranches across the upper basin actually spilling water onto the ground, taking it out of the system and spilling it, because it would ultimately protect their long-term water rights.

And so that use called, you know, sort of use it or lose it, which is pervasive across the basin, the amount of water that is wasted that way hasn't exactly been quantified. But the recognition that that's a pervasive problem, you know, is widespread, and it's one of the things that policymakers are hoping to address now as we look desperately for new ways to conserve water.

DAVIES: There's also just the kind of agriculture that is practiced in a lot of the states - Arizona, California. In some respects, the crops that are grown place a particularly high burden in ways that probably don't make that much sense, right? Why don't - explain this for us.

LUSTGARTEN: Yeah, well, many of the crops that are grown with Colorado River water use an enormous amount of water. I'm thinking mainly of alfalfa and then of grasses for grazing. Alfalfa is one of the most water-consuming crops you could possibly grow. We grow it across Colorado. We grow it across Arizona and parts of California. And the main use for alfalfa is to feed cattle. And significant part of that feed for cattle isn't even for American cattle, but it's shipped overseas. It's exported to China, or it's exported to the Middle East. And it's an example of extraordinary, you know, water use that goes to a very small segment, you know, of society and meets a - you know, a very small purpose.

DAVIES: Right. There was also the issue, last time we spoke, of cotton being grown in Arizona, which, at the time, didn't - there wasn't a great market for it. It wasn't a particularly lucrative crop. But there were farm subsidies from the federal government that made it almost mandatory to grow. And it uses a lot of water. That's still happening?

LUSTGARTEN: Yeah, we have a whole system, you know, through the Farm Bill, which is the largest - one of the largest pieces of legislation and subsidization, you know, in the United States. And the Farm Bill is essentially designed to support farmers. And - you know, and it distributes money, you know, based on past practice for growing. In the West, a lot of those subsidies are sent to farmers that have historically grown things that happen to be very water-inefficient - so farmers who grow alfalfa and, in the example you're describing that I reported on, farmers who grow cotton in the Arizona desert.

And so what's happened as a mechanism of that Farm Bill is that as the pressure to use less water, you know, has become more and more apparent and these farmers might have reconsidered what they grow, the Farm Bill steps in as - you know, as an incentive to continue growing the water-intensive crops, to keep that cotton growing. Because the farmers that I talked to in central Arizona, for example - when they considered switching crops, they lose the historical production record, which entitles them to the subsidies.

So it's a long way of saying, you know, the net effect of many of the federal subsidies that we offer for the agricultural industry have the - you know, have the effect of maintaining the status quo at a very, you know, point in time when what's desperately needed is to change the status quo and revisit, you know, the way - the crops that are grown and how much water those crops use.

DAVIES: You know, it's interesting 'cause you've described your conversations with farmers and ranchers, many of whom understand that water is scarce and conservation is important. But, you know, they're up against the hard economic realities of the lives that they live. You know, I almost hesitate to ask why does the - why do these farm subsidies exist that seems so irrational?

LUSTGARTEN: Well, it seems irrational in the context of growing crops in the desert and the current water situation. But, you know, when you look back historically, the United States developed westward, you know, to - not only to distribute land to people, but to create a food economy, you know, to create ranch land that could supply, you know, meat back to the eastern United States and growing cities in - you know, in the early 1800s, for example.

And, you know, it's created an ethos and a culture in the West. It is the agricultural, you know, heartland for the country. And it has always depended on the distribution of water and, to some extent, on subsidies, whether those subsidies were, you know, federal support for building the railways that transported their crops and cattle and meat back east or discounted water or, in this case, you know, the subsidies of the Farm Bill itself.

You know, so once the - you know, the establishment of that Western agricultural culture, you know, was cemented, then, you know, we - there's always been pressure to support those communities, support the culture of farming in the West, and support the function that it serves in providing food for the rest of the country. And that's where the Farm Bill comes in, you know, maybe with good intentions, but it's an overwhelmingly large bureaucracy with some obvious faults as well.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Abrahm Lustgarten. He's an investigative reporter focusing on the environment at ProPublica. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THIRD WORLD LOVE'S "SEFARAD")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with ProPublica investigative reporter Abrahm Lustgarten about the water scarcity facing the states in the West that rely on the Colorado River.

Well, besides the water from the Colorado River, there is groundwater, which is tapped with wells in a lot of these states. How does that source fit into this picture?

LUSTGARTEN: Yeah, that's exactly right. So groundwater aquifers are an extremely important source of water across the West and - well, across the country and the world, for that matter. It's a very complex relationship with the Colorado River in part because aquifers and rivers, including the Colorado, actually intersect, and so they exchange some water. But in the West, in Colorado, all the water laws that we were talking about and the water rights handle these two sources of water as if they're completely separate and independent. So that's to say we've divided up who gets access to Colorado River, and it's regulated separately from who can take water from underground aquifers. And in many places - most parts of rural Arizona, for example, and across the state of California - if you drill a well on your own property into an aquifer, you can take as much water as you're able to suck out of that aquifer. In some places, where those water supplies overlap, pulling groundwater can literally suck water out of the river that is unregulated. That's probably a minority of cases. But it's a big, gaping loophole in the laws that govern how water is being used.

DAVIES: California is a huge center of agriculture. How has it been affected by the draining of the Colorado River?

LUSTGARTEN: So California is the single largest holder of water rights from the Colorado River. And some of that water goes to Los Angeles and also to the metro area around San Diego. But the majority of it is used by the Imperial Irrigation District, which is an enormous farm district in the southern - southeast corner of California, where an incredible amount of the nation's winter vegetables are grown. If you buy a package of carrots in New Jersey, you've most likely bought carrots that were grown in the Imperial Valley in California. So it's been a coup historically for California to get access to this water, the result of really difficult negotiations in the past and then the building of extraordinary infrastructure - more canals, more pipelines - to bring that water farther west into California. And then, because of California's political might on the system, it has so far avoided, you know, many of the most severe cuts to Colorado River water usage.

So you know, for example, the federal government declared, you know, a shortage officially about a year and a half ago. And the states have agreed to a tiered system of voluntary cuts. California hasn't yet had to offer up much water, while Arizona has lost about 20% of its access to the Colorado River. So you know, California will - as things get worse, California will, by that agreement, have to offer up more water. But also, because they've been so far spared, the state's really, you know, the next on the chopping block politically. And I think that's where a lot of the tension in the current negotiations lie, the sense of unfairness across the region that California hasn't yet had to feel the pain.

DAVIES: You know, you mentioned one fact, that there is research that shows - this is kind of startling - that if Americans simply avoided eating meat one day a week, it could save water equivalent to the entire flow of the Colorado River each year.

LUSTGARTEN: That's right. It's an incredible number. This was a calculation I did with the help of some European researchers back in 2015 when I was reporting on the Colorado River. But the overarching idea is widely accepted, which is that an incredible amount of the water goes to grow these crops that are used to feed cattle for meat, and that if the demand for meat is reduced, an enormous amount of water is saved. So the potential in those figures, as you said, is the entire flow of the Colorado River. You could virtually solve the West's water crisis just by shifting, you know, away from that meat consumption.

DAVIES: So let's talk about what needs to change, what might happen. I think any - a lot of these issues involving land use are particularly thorny because, you know, political power is diffused, right? I mean, you've got counties and states and water authorities. And, of course, states have enormous autonomy within the federal constitution. Do we need a national water policy?

LUSTGARTEN: A lot of the experts that I talked to say that it is time for a national water policy. And if you take a step back and you put aside for a moment, you know, those - the independent streak of the West and those separate state interests you mentioned, there's a logical, you know, need for - there's a logical argument for a national water policy. I mean, what you have is, you know, a national system of food supply and distribution, not to mention an enormous chunk of - you know, of the whole country's population that is entirely dependent on what's happening with water in the West. And at the same time, you have abundant water resources in other parts of the country and significant chunks of the economy in other parts of the country that depend on how well this entire system works. And there's - you know, it really becomes kind of a classic model for the need for an overarching policy that can tie all of these, you know, various needs and interests together.

DAVIES: And what would it take to make that happen?

LUSTGARTEN: It's not exactly clear what it would take. I mean, some people I talked to talk about the creation of a climate czar or a national office of water policy. That might be, you know, a way to have federal authority that isn't just focused on, you know, Western water infrastructure, which is a lot of what the Department of Interior does, but can consider, you know, the - you know, equal distribution of resources in the Great Lakes, for example, or the rivers on the East Coast, or consider the broader implications for food supplies.

DAVIES: We'll take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Abrahm Lustgarten. He's an investigative reporter focusing on the environment and climate change at ProPublica. We'll be back to talk more after a short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE'S "GARDENS")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with ProPublica investigative reporter Abrahm Lustgarten about the water scarcity facing the states in the West that rely on the Colorado River. The excessive demands on the river and the effects of climate change have created such a crisis that federal officials are demanding that the seven states that draw water from the river reduce their usage. Lustgarten's 2015 series on the water shortage in the West was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

As for this tradition in water rights that you get to keep the water rights you have as long as you use all of that water, even if you waste it, any chance that that could be changed?

LUSTGARTEN: Yeah. You know, from my outsider perspective, this seems like an incredibly easy change to make and honestly is a little confounding to me that it hasn't been better addressed, you know, up until this date. But there are ways - there are mechanisms that are increasingly being used that begin to address, you know, this use-it-or-lose-it practice. One is to obviously just loosen the requirements so that, you know, water rights holders and ranch owners don't face the prospect of losing their long-term water rights if they don't use all the water in any - in a given year. And that's - you know, that's a legal change that has to be made, you know, on a local level, state by state, by water courts in Colorado or legislatures elsewhere. And that can happen.

What is happening is the practice of paying some of those ranchers not to use their water and agreeing, in exchange for that payment, to preserve their water rights, that the water is, quote-unquote, used but it's used by putting it into storage, say, in Lake Mead, which increases the supply for the overall system. So people have been kind of creatively working around that system and defining, you know, the word, use, basically, so that, you know, money can compensate a rancher for not using what they need but the redistribution of their water can still count as the use that preserves their water rights. That's incredibly complicated, but it's also something that's working. And we're seeing more money pumped into those efforts right now.

We had the - you know, the Inflation Reduction Act passed by the Biden administration just a couple of months ago, allocates $4 billion for Western water issues. And a big chunk of that money is going to go to just those sorts of contracts I just mentioned, to paying farmers not to use water or to fallow their fields for season and preserving their rights after that season.

DAVIES: Wow. It seems - you know, when you consider all the - you know, the demands for government services that are out there for all kinds of things, it seems a little inequitable to be paying people not to use water that they don't need, doesn't it?

LUSTGARTEN: (Laughter) So without a doubt, it's a short-term fix. And it illustrates, you know, how the Western culture - the ranching culture, the agricultural culture - is - you know, is both, you know, a vestige of history, but also has become critically important for the economies of those states and for the country. And it's just, you know, become a bit of an intractable problem. It would seem simple to - you know, to ban farmers from using water on the Colorado River, and then, there's a whole lot more for the cities of Los Angeles and Phoenix, for example, except that, you know, the whole country depends on the food that's grown in those areas. So you have the livelihoods of farmers and, you know, the political implications of - you know, of taking that money and jobs away. You have the cultural impact of what that would mean to those communities.

And then, you have the food security considerations for the - you know, for the country on a much grander scale. And I think that is where the conversation is shifting now, to these questions of, you know, if we don't grow our national food supply in the Western United States, then where do we grow it? And how do you shift that industry to a different location? Or does it make more sense to figure out how to move water to where that - you know, that growing industry already exists and all of the infrastructure that goes with it and the systems for distribution and so forth? Neither one of those are easy questions to answer, by any means.

DAVIES: So if agriculture changes dramatically, if California is forced to grow less, what does that mean for the balance of the - you know, the nation's food supply?

LUSTGARTEN: I think that's an open question that neither I or many of the experts I talked to have an easy answer for. Among other things, it means that we need to diversify our regional sources of food. There should probably be increased agricultural activity in the parts of the country that have ample water supply to the extent that that's possible. A lot of people talk about local agriculture, growing fruits and vegetables close to home instead of shipping them across the country, or having sort of this, you know, centralized growing area like we do now in the West. Those are incremental, you know, improvements that will help address, you know, the system that we have now.

Narrowing the range of crops that the current, you know, water users in the West grow is probably another really logical conclusion. So it's this sort of prioritization of use, this decision of whether, you know, growing alfalfa to support the cattle industry is the best use of that water or whether it should go to growing, you know, more carrots and broccoli that's distributed across the country. Those are difficult decisions that kind of get at or, you know, erode the independence of - you know, of a lot of those farmers. But I think that those are, you know, inevitable questions that are about to come up.

DAVIES: Sounds like the kind of thing where, you know, a presidential intervention might be warranted. Do you know if President Biden's focused on this personally?

LUSTGARTEN: I haven't heard of any personal engagement from President Biden on this matter. You know, there is significant authority that's been given to, you know, the top water managers within the Department of Interior including the secretary of interior herself. I think that's a reflection of, you know, this at least having some recognized priority within the administration.

But, you know, one of the things that, you know, my sources groan about at the moment is that this hasn't been recognized as the even greater, you know, national emergency that it is, whether that's, you know, part of the argument for a national water policy or simply, you know, recognizing that, you know, when it comes to climate change, perhaps after cutting emissions of carbon dioxide, regulating or addressing the, you know, the country's overarching water scarcity concerns, you know, should be a top priority or should be the next priority. And we're not quite seeing that from this administration or any administration, for that matter.

DAVIES: Abrahm Lustgarten is an investigative reporter focusing on the environment at ProPublica. We'll continue our conversation after this break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAQUITO D'RIVERA QUINTET'S "CONTRADANZA")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with ProPublica investigative reporter Abrahm Lustgarten about the water scarcity problem facing states in the West that rely on the Colorado River.

You know, there are some big engineering ideas about resolving these issues. I mean, one of them is that, you know, you have two large dams on the Colorado - right? - the Hoover Dam and the Glen Canyon Dam. And if you essentially took down the Glen Canyon Dam and combined the two reservoirs, let the water from that dam, which is Lake Powell - which, I know from your reporting, has a porous ground underneath it and leaks a lot. If you simply let that water flow down and fill up the reservoir at Lake Mead, you'd get less evaporation and less leakage. Is that a good idea? Could it happen?

LUSTGARTEN: So this is an idea that's been supported by environmental advocates in Utah and by some - you know, some parties in the upper basin states for - you know, for quite some time. It's a logical idea. I think that, you know, there's - the math suggests that there's some clear savings. As you said, you know, an incredible amount of water leaks out of the geology beneath Lake Powell and is lost. And an incredible amount of water is lost from both reservoirs just from evaporation. So the idea in combining them is, you know, you create - you reduce two surfaces for evaporation to one. And you reduce the - you know, the underground leakage. And there is some savings there. The current evaporative losses from those two reservoirs plus the leakage amounts to about 10% of the current flow of the Colorado River, which is just huge. And so if you were to cut that by a couple percentage points, that's not going to solve the long-term pressures that climate change is putting on this river system. We really have to adjust how that water is used. But it is an incremental efficiency that would - that seems like it would go a long way towards, you know, saving a good chunk of water.

DAVIES: So is that politically feasible? I mean, seems like it makes sense, doesn't it?

LUSTGARTEN: I've heard very little politically about that suggestion being taken seriously. It's something I reported on a couple of years ago. And at the time, it wasn't really part of the mainstream conversation. And it's not coming up again now. What the - you know, the political focus now seems to be entirely on protecting the viability of these two reservoirs. And a part of that is because each of them also generates a whole lot of power that's distributed across - electrical power, hydropower that's distributed across the Western states. And so, you know, that would be one loss to combining the two reservoirs is, you know, the loss of what the Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell generates for power.

DAVIES: Right. And the low water levels have not restricted the power generation yet?

LUSTGARTEN: (Laughter) Well, they actually have. I mean, the - Lake Powell is barely producing the power that it needs to now. It's about 178 vertical feet below what they call full pool, which is the water height that allows the power generation there to generate at its full capacity. And it's only 32 feet above what they call dead pool, which is the level at which no power can be generated and, actually, no water can pass through the dam. So it's pretty close to proving itself, you know, useless as it is. And, you know, perhaps gone underreported in all the recent news about the Colorado River is that the federal government actually has sort of a worst-case projection for how bad things might get over the next 12 months. And, you know, their projection is that Lake Powell could reach dead pool by the end of 2023, that the elevation of the water there would go below the intake pipes that run the generation plant and pass water through the rest of the Colorado River.

DAVIES: Wow. So it wouldn't generate any electricity at all in that case?

LUSTGARTEN: That's right.

DAVIES: Wow. Other big ideas - desalinization, taking salt water and removing the salt. I know this has been explored. It is very expensive. Does it offer any real hope for solving this issue?

LUSTGARTEN: Yeah. So you know, Americans have a great knack for hoping that technology and more infrastructure investment will solve, you know, our worst environmental problems. And this is another - you know, another example, though, maybe not entirely misplaced. In 2012, so a number of years ago now, the federal government undertook a study of these alternatives. It included desalinization. It included the idea of towing icebergs down from the Arctic or the idea of building a pipeline across the country to the Mississippi River or to the Great Lakes.

You know, at the time, each of them were discounted mainly for the amount of energy that they would need. Desalinization requires an extraordinary amount of energy and then would require pipelines from the coast - maybe, you know, the Gulf of California - to distribute that water back northward, you know, over the Colorado River basin states. As the situation gets worse and worse, the people that I talk to consider those once extreme options more and more. It's really difficult to say, you know, what's viable - what will seem more viable, you know, a decade from now. But suffice to say that things that once seemed absolutely out of the question are no longer out of the question. And I think that there's a revisiting of some of those creative solutions.

DAVIES: Well, I want to be there when they tow the iceberg. That's got to be something to see. Wow (laughter). You know, there's a strong spirit of independence among farmers and ranchers in the West. And, you know, at times, armed groups have defended their rights against federal incursions. Do you think that this is a factor that, you know - that holds the federal government back from taking over - taking stronger policy steps in this area?

LUSTGARTEN: I have never heard my sources in the federal government that govern western water talk about this concern explicitly or even talk about, you know, sort of the political, you know, consequences of, you know, greater federal action as an explicit reason for slowing down action. But it's obviously, you know, a factor in their larger thinking so that, you know, the Department of Interior has had to cope with, for example, some of the land use disputes, you know, with you know, with armed factions in Oregon and in Nevada over the last couple of years. And I think that there is an awareness that, you know, the culture of the west in particular, you know, has a real strong independent streak and, you know, politically is not always welcoming of, you know, of more regulation as opposed to less. And so while I haven't heard it explicitly said, I mean, I think it's inevitable that sensitivity to, you know, to that leads to a cautionary approach.

DAVIES: You know, as we discuss this, I'm really struck by how much you know about this and how much most of the rest of us don't. And it occurs to me that, like, this is really important, consequential stuff that's happening there. And - but as long as people turn on the tap and get water, and we can buy our carrots and celery grown in California, we're just not going to get that invested in this. Is there something that could happen which would make people realize, my heavens, we've got a crisis that demands attention?

LUSTGARTEN: Well, I think that if there were a shift in the easy availability of any kind of food you want, any time you want it, no matter where you are, that would point people to the severity of the crisis or the severity of the future crisis. Not that we have any difficulty in supplying food to the country right now, but we might in 10 or 20 years with the direction that things are going. I mean, I think taking a moment just to understand what resources go into producing the food that we eat, no matter where we live, would help elevate the crisis that the west is facing around its water supply to, you know, to the level of national concern that it truly should be.

DAVIES: You know, we spoke about these issues seven years ago. If you can, how would you sum up what's happened over the last seven years?

LUSTGARTEN: I lived in Colorado for a long time. And I still live in the west today. And, you know, it's both a source of fascination for me and, you know, a part of the country that's incredibly important to me. And it has been dispiriting at best to watch, you know, the lack of progress over the years that I've reported on this issue. Some of the, you know, proposed solutions seem so accessible and so easy to enact - reducing the amount of water wasted through use it or lose it incentives, for example, or changing the crops that are grown with scarce water supplies.

And none of, you know, none of the critiques that I would offer or that the experts that I talk to would offer or that the thousands of articles written on the subject point to are a surprise to anyone. None of them are new. And yet, you know, over seven years there's been so little action other than watching the steady supply of the river go down and down and down each year. And each year, the, you know, the federal government issues a new estimate for its worst-case scenario for flows in the river. It rarely goes up. There's always hope that there's going to be a big water year.

But now we can see, you know, this 23-year trend of steady decrease in the basin. And the climate science is increasingly clear that that trend is going to continue. And the states and, you know, governors of the river have just shown a, you know, an unwillingness to respond with the sense of urgency and at the scale that all of that data and science suggest is needed.

DAVIES: Well, Abrahm Lustgarten, thanks so much for your reporting. And thanks for spending some time with us.

LUSTGARTEN: Thank you so much for your interest. It's great to talk about this again.

DAVIES: Abrahm Lustgarten is an investigative reporter focusing on the environment at ProPublica. You can find his work on the ProPublica website. Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews the recording of a live solo concert by pianist Mal Waldron in 1978 that's being released for the first time. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.