There's a historic water crisis unfolding in the American West, with increasingly urgent drought reports from California to Colorado. But so far, the balance of focus has been on the climate, not on ourselves. This week, ProPublica and Matter begin publishing Killing the Colorado, a multi-part series by Abrahm Lustgarten investigating the truth behind the water crisis in the West. In his report, Lustgarten explains how manmade policies and practices have helped drive today's crisis.
When faced with a dwindling water supply, state and federal officials have again and again relied on human ingenuity to engineer a way out of making hard choices about using less water. But the engineering that made settling the West possible may have reached the bounds of its potential. Dams and their reservoirs leak or lose billions of gallons of water to evaporation. The colossal Navajo Generating Station, which burns 22,000 tons of coal a day in large part to push water hundreds of miles across Arizona, is among the nation's biggest greenhouse gas polluters, contributing to the very climate change that is exacerbating the drought.
If our decisions brought us here, what will it take to solve the problem? To explore this question, we are gathering some of the smartest thinkers on water management issues to discuss the causes, perils — and potential solutions — surrounding the current crisis. It will be a virtual water crisis conference, featuring expert voices from different perspectives, including farming, the environment, water law, science and policy.
Our panelists have been paired up to tackle questions like: What exactly is the water crisis all about? How does the drought affect the price of fruits and vegetables we buy every day? And why, in 2015, are we still operating under a century-old water rights policy?
Our conversation kicks off with a discussion on the scope of today's crisis.
Farmers now use the majority of the West's water resources. Are the crops they grow a priority or should they reduce their water use? Can curbing urban consumption make enough of a difference? Follow their discussion here.
As in, should we even be calling it a crisis?
One argument says we have plenty of water, if it were only better used. The other is that no matter what — with climate change, population growth and drought — we are running out. Which is it?
Can cities keep growing in the desert?
Do geography and natural resources force limits on urban growth? Do current water rights laws allow cities to access the water they need to grow, or will something have to give?
Cutting water use: focus on cities or farms?
Farmers now use the majority of the West's water resources. Are the crops they grow a priority or should they reduce their water use? Can curbing urban consumption make enough of a difference?
Today's water laws: use them, or lose them?
A cornerstone of water rights law in the West warns ranchers and others who use water to "use it or lose it." Is that policy driving over-consumption? Should our water rights laws change? How?
How much water should we be saving?
All of the water in the Colorado River is divided between farmers and cities, with little left to support the ecology of the river system itself. Why does that matter? And should more water be left in the Colorado to help it thrive?