If the Colorado River Basin is a test case for how a massive watershed can prepare for scarcity in the years ahead, recent news has been encouraging.
Seven states, tribes, conservationists, and other stakeholders agreed to a Drought Contingency Plan, signed into law by President Trump last month, that spreads out cutbacks so that Lake Powell and Lake Mead don’t drop too low.
While the seven-year agreement confronted the nuts-and-bolts realities of keeping water flowing to forty million people and five million acres of farmland, the hard work to bring about a truly sustainable future is just beginning, participants agreed at the Lincoln Institute Journalists Forum this spring in Phoenix. The two-day event, attended by about 50 reporters and editors, was organized by the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy in partnership with Walton Family Foundation, Gates Family Foundation, and the Arizona State University Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
“We’ve made enormous progress. We are learning to talk to each other,” said former Arizona Governor and U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt (video). Now, he said, “We need to talk to each other about how we’re using water . . . how water gets used on the land.”
That conversation—both among and within Colorado River Basin states, with all stakeholders at the table—will help determine the best mix of future policies basin-wide, including conservation, efficiency, market pricing, and infrastructure. The problem, Babbitt said, is that the adversarial stance has dominated for so long—“waving the bloody shirt” as he put it, never giving in, never yielding a drop—it has blotted out these longer-term considerations.
“That’s where we’ve always been. How do we divvy up the river, who gets what share, how much, in what circumstances . . . and it’s nobody’s business about how it’s used,” he said. The sooner that changes, the better, he said, so the next crisis in the basin doesn’t dictate how this most precious resource is managed.
The Journalists Forum, a tradition at the Lincoln Institute going back nearly two decades, has focused on various themes including climate change, gentrification, infrastructure, and property rights, to name a few. This year’s issue was the Colorado River Basin and the integration of water management and land use—the mission of the Phoenix-based Babbitt Center, established two years ago. On social media, the hashtag was #WaterMeetsLand.
After hearing an overview of the history, hydrology, and the laws, treaties, and other agreements governing the use of Colorado River Basin water, the journalists considered how intensely and quickly climate change has complicated everything about the system. Despite this year’s relatively robust snowpack, warming trends will inexorably decrease supply, said Kathy Jacobs, director of the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions at the University of Arizona, and a leader in the National Climate Assessment initiative. Virtually all future decisions and actions must be based in the understanding of climate science, she said.
Climate change has also raised the stakes in the already challenging business of bringing together stakeholders, including those in agriculture, the growing constituency of urban areas, and environmentalists concerned about the integrity of ecosystems. The intensity of the crisis tends to make different groups feel defensive and wary, just at the moment when they should be open to new ideas, said Colorado rancher Paul Bruchez, who has worked to blend the interests of wildlife habitat, recreation, and irrigation needs for agriculture.
Similarly, indigenous peoples, overlooked or excluded from many previous agreements, bring a lot to the table. “Tribes have lived for hundreds of years in some kind of balance,” said Daryl Vigil, water administrator for the Jicarilla Apache Nation, and part of the Ten Tribes Partnership. “We want to show the world how we fit into this picture.”
The journalists also heard from Stephen R. Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian Community; Terry Fulp, Lower Colorado Regional Director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation; and Roberto Salmón, Mexican commissioner of the Mexico-United States International Boundary and Water Commission (video). All emphasized the importance of keeping and building relationships, and basing decisions on solid evidence.
As the forum turned to exploring solutions, technology emerged as one of the more promising tools for making water infrastructure more efficient, improving conservation, facilitating desalination and storage, and revealing what’s happening to the water on the land through satellite imagery and data collection. A solid foundation of evidence can guide decision making in powerful ways, said George W. “Mac” McCarthy, president of the Lincoln Institute.
Data collection tells stories that confront the intense emotions pulsing through all issues of water and land, he said, citing the Chesapeake Bay Conservancy’s high-resolution mapping, which helped farmers pinpoint areas of runoff from fields. That knowledge allowed farmers and environmentalists to target riparian buffers where they were most needed, rather than requiring blanket solutions for such interventions throughout the properties. Two potential adversaries started working better together, aided by technology. “It changed the entire sociology,” McCarthy said.
Still, there was no universal agreement about the path forward. “We have to address the structural deficit,” said Pat Mulroy, senior fellow at the William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a veteran of water battles (video). That means augmenting the system with new sources, and entertaining more radical ideas, like the sea-to-sea pipeline to stabilize California’s Salton Sea and the provision of extra water through desalination. “We can’t get through the next seven years simply by taking away. You can manage the system all you want. It’s going to crash. . . . You can’t conserve your way out of it. Everything has to be on the table.”
Added Dave White, director of the Decision Center for a Desert City at Arizona State University: “There is simply no historical record that approximates what the future will be under the climate change scenario. . . . The mechanisms designed for the system thus far” can’t just be tweaked.
Yet all stakeholders should stay wary of “magical thinking” and a quest for a silver bullet, which can become a distraction, said Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River Program director for the Audubon Society. Others agreed that there is still plenty to gain by eliminating grass lawns, recycling water for use in toilets, or finding different ways to grow thirsty crops—and by scrupulously linking water management with land use, zoning for housing, and economic development. Many of those steps are being taken at the local level, seen in one presentation on policies and initiatives in the city of Westminster, Colorado.
Anne Castle, senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources at the University of Colorado, Boulder, echoed the sentiments of several speakers by pointing out that the window for action will close soon. “We’ve only got a couple of years to do a lot of creative thinking and change our paradigm.”
Many agreed that the management of water resources “needs a lot of journalistic attention,” as Bruce Babbitt put it. Reporters and editors shared how they have engaged readers on the topic by telling stories that go beyond horse-race coverage of incremental political wins.
Ted Kowalski, senior program officer for the Walton Family Foundation's Colorado River initiative, announced the establishment of The Water Desk, an independent news organization dedicated to coverage of Western water issues, to be led by Mitch Tobin at the University of Colorado.
In a session titled “Practicing the Craft,” Elizabeth Hightower Allen, features editor at Outside magazine, shared examples of content that engages readers by building on human drama. The challenge is to draw in the “concerned middle” between those who are “freaked out” and those who deny there is a crisis unfolding, suggested Cynthia Barnett, environmental journalist in residence at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.
Paolo Bacigalupi, author of The Water Knife, fielded questions about his disturbing narrative of a dystopian future of chronic water shortages. The dark and action-packed novel was certainly one way to draw attention to water issues. But, he added, “I’d love to be proven wrong,” he said.
The journalists agreed that while specialized outlets like Circle of Blue, Aspen Journalism, and ProPublica have been putting water issues front and center, there is no substitute for thoughtful coverage by major metropolitan newspapers, which can have greater influence on elected officials and policy makers. One important journalistic obligation emerged: holding all parties accountable for following through with commitments.
Coverage flowing from the 2019 Journalists Forum included dispatches by Josh Stephens at California Planning & Development Report; Jason Blevins at The Colorado Sun; Ry Rivard at the Voice of San Diego; and Tom Yulsman at Discover magazine. James Brasuell, managing editor at Planetizen, has also been aggregating stories about water and land use here.
Slide show presentations and videos of portions of the Journalists Forum are available on the Lincoln Institute website.
Anthony Flint is a senior fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.
Photograph: Journalists at the Tres Rios water treatment area in Phoenix, one of several field trips to innovative projects, in collaboration with the 10X Water Summit, held just before the 2019 Journalists Forum. Credit: Anthony Flint