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A new podcast from KUNC looks at the Colorado River Basin and how people are living with less

 Thirst gap podcast logo and art.
Wyoming Public Media
Thirst gap podcast logo and art.

The Colorado River Basin is a water system that runs from the Rocky Mountains, starting in Wyoming, all the way into the desert of the southwest and Mexico. It provides water for 40 million people, but also for many other things, like agriculture and outdoor recreation. In recent years, this system has been at record lows, and shortages are expected to get worse. So how can seven states, 30 Native American tribes and northern Mexico learn to live with less?

KUNC’s, the Northern Colorado public radio, reporter and managing editor Luke Runyon put together a podcast series exploring the issue. It is called ‘Thirst Gap’. He spoke with Wyoming Public Radio’s Caitlin Tan.

Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Caitlin Tan: You've been covering the Colorado River Basin for some time now. Why did you decide to put together a podcast?

Luke Runyon: I've been covering the Colorado River pretty much full-time since 2017. I guess one of the reasons why I wanted to do the podcast is, the situation on the Colorado River has gotten a lot worse over the last couple of years. When I first started covering this issue in 2017, I think there were some people who were like, ‘Oh, this is kind of like a slow-moving train wreck. We can see these problems far off in the distance. But you know, we're not really having to grapple with any of these big hard challenges just yet.’ And all it took was a string of two or three dry winters in a row for us to be able to see the train that was coming down the line.

And a lot of these hard conversations about how to go about using less water became a lot more urgent. And so my attempt with the podcast was to zoom in on some of the people in places in the West that are already grappling with water scarcity and learn about the challenges that they're facing in the hopes that we all might glean something from them.

CT: It's a six-part series, and you start with some really interesting history on the whole system. And then you literally work your way down it, starting in Colorado, all the way to Mexico. And each episode features stops along the way, which I thought was a really clever approach. Did any of those stops stand out in particular to you?

LR: This is one of the nice things about rivers is that they're this linear shape. And so it's really easy to be able to narratively follow a story along a river. I think each stop was really impactful in its own way. I think one of the things about covering water in the West is that it can be really easy for people to feel entrenched in their own camps, whether that's city leaders or farmers or recreation groups. And it can be really easy to sort of start pointing fingers of like, ‘Who's using water the best? And who's the worst? And who are the villains, and who are the heroes?’ And really, we're all reliant on this shrinking resource. And I don't think any of that finger-pointing really helps, because there really aren't any villains in this story.

What I wanted to do is introduce the people who are those users, the people who are reliant on this resource, and see if we can kind of create some empathy between all of these different actors who are relying on this shrinking resource.

CT: One of the stops that really stood out to me was when you were in Las Vegas, I believe it was episode four. And you're touring around with essentially a water cop who writes people tickets if they're using too much water. And you catch this really great scene of homeowners getting ticketed for overwatering their lawn and, and they felt frustrated. Like they're kind of small fish in the pond when it comes to the water shortage situation. Let's take a quick listen to homeowner Linda Marston.

“Well, how much more can you do? With all the water waste everywhere out here? Give me a break. I mean, 25 years we're here, try to correct it, and then get a fine for $80. I mean, really? Come on.”

CT: Luke, tell us some of your thoughts from that?

LR: I mean it's great tape. Just as you know, as an audio journalist, you can't really ask for better tape than that. But it went a little deeper than that – really what made that stop illustrative to me was this really is how a lot of these conversations about water play out. It's not just someone watering their lawn in Las Vegas. It's so easy for people to feel like, ‘My use of water from my little corner of the watershed, that's totally justified.’ Whether that's growing a front lawn, whether that's growing a field of alfalfa hay, it's really easy to feel protective of that. It's like, ‘This is mine. I want this.’ And when it feels threatened, or like someone is going to take that away from you, it's really easy to get your hackles up really quickly, and feel like well, ‘Why are you paying so much attention to me? Why am I the one who's causing the problem here? We should be talking about other people's water use.’ So that was what was so illustrative to me about that particular stop.

CT: And then another interesting thing that stood out to me, you pointed out that conserving water has to do more with outdoor use, like watering lawns, and less about our water use in the house, which I actually never realized. You always hear recommendations about showering less or washing your dishes more carefully. Can you talk about that?

LR: I've talked to conservation groups who say, ‘We've done a really good job of conserving water within homes.’ A lot of that is like the efficiency of new appliances and fixtures and that sort of thing. And so a lot of the focus of municipal conservation right now is on outdoor use, not a lot is really being done on indoor conservation. It's all on lawn buyback programs, encouraging desert landscaping, changing rules for homeowners associations – to encourage them to change landscaping – because really, that's where the loss occurs.

The loss for a city occurs when water evaporates or is sucked up by plants, and that could be grass or trees. So there's a lot of cities that are saying, ‘Alright. We need to be focusing on how our very scarce water resources are being used, and maybe grass is this luxury that we can't really afford anymore in the region?’

CT: What about people in Wyoming? Wyoming is part of the headwaters of this whole system, and I don't know necessarily if people have felt the pinch quite as much over here in Wyoming yet. What would be your pitch to them to have them listen to ‘Thirst Gap’?

LR: One thing that I've tried to do throughout my reporting is show how the entire Colorado River watershed is really connected. It's this intimately managed, connected river system. And whether you're talking about the snow that falls in the headwaters, like in the Wind River Range in Wyoming, which feeds the Green River, flows down to Flaming Gorge reservoir, or you're talking about the farm fields down in Yuma, Arizona, where that water eventually ends up. The decisions that are made in different parts of the watershed have this sort of ripple effect and that can happen moving downstream or upstream.

So, this issue isn't something where people can kind of bury their head in the sand. Wyoming has to participate in some of these conversations around the rivers’ management, because they're reliant on it, too. There's a sizable agricultural industry in the Green River Valley, near Pinedale in that area, so no one's getting out of this without having to have hard conversations about our water use.

To see more of Luke Runyon’s reporting go here and to listen to ‘Thirst Gap’ go here, or find it wherever you listen to podcasts.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.
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