What Can We Do to Solve the West’s Water Crisis?

There’s disagreement over the extent of the problem and what can be done to fix it.


A collaboration between ProPublica and Matter


ProPublica has asked some of the leading thinkers on water management issues to weigh in.

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 man-made 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?

We also encourage you to ask our panelists questions and share your thoughts in the responses below.


Let’s get started.

The Conversation: Why can’t we find a solution to the West’s water crisis?

There are a lot of players in the game of drought: Farmers from the seven Colorado Basin states, politicians in the West, experts looking for policy changes in some of the region’s arcane water laws, and the environmentalists fighting for conservation big and small among them. In the Killing The Colorado series, we showed that this unfolding water crisis is man-made, not just the result of a lack of rain. What should be done to respond to this crisis?

We brought in Doug Kenney, the director of the Western Water Policy program at the University of Colorado Boulder, and George Frisvold, an economist at The University of Arizona to help us imagine a way out of the current water crisis.

This conversation accompanies this story:

Less Than Zero: Despite Decades of Accepted Science, California and Arizona Are Still Miscounting Their Water Supplies


The Conversation: Today’s water laws encourage waste. Can big data help shape better ones?

“Use it or lose it” water policies — a cornerstone of water rights laws across the West — are encouraging ranchers and others to use precious water supplies whether they truly need them or not. How is this century-old policy affecting the drought? Are these policies effective?

We asked Peter Gleick, founder of the Pacific Institute, to talk about the costs and benefits of “use it or lose it” policies with Paul Wenger, the California Farm Bureau Federation President, starting with the central question: Should our water rights laws change?

This conversation accompanies this story:

Use It or Lose It: Across the West, Exercising One’s Right to Waste Water


The Conversation: How do we meet our 21st century water needs?

The Colorado River’s water is divided entirely 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 We thought it would be interesting to have an environmentalist and the CEO of a major urban water utility discuss this. We paired Jennifer Pitt, director of the Colorado River Program for the Environmental Defense Fund, and Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water, which provides water for more than one million people in the city and county of Denver, to tackle the question.

This conversation accompanies this story:

End of the Miracle Machines: Inside the Power Plant Fueling America’s Drought


The Conversation: Can cities keep growing in the desert?

How does a city exist in the desert? And not merely exist, but grow by leaps and bounds? That’s what Las Vegas did, becoming an oasis of casinos, suburban expansion, golf courses and a water system surrounded by a waterless landscape. Pat Mulroy knows a lot about this as the Las Vegas Valley’s former chief water official. So we brought Mulroy and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Kennedytogether to talk water, cities and the desert and asked:

This conversation accompanies this story:

The “Water Witch”: Pat Mulroy Preached Conservation While Backing Growth in Las Vegas


The Conversation: 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? Colorado farmer Pat O’Toole and water expert Robert Glennon of the University of Arizona discuss where water cuts should come from, the future of farming, and the consequences of not opening our eyes to the unfolding water crisis.

This conversation accompanies this story:

HOLY CROP: How Federal Dollars Are Financing the Water Crisis in the West


What are your questions? Have an idea or a comment? Leave all of that in the responses below.