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‘Parched’ podcast explores solutions to Colorado River crisis

A buoy rests on the ground at a closed boat ramp on Lake Mead at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area near Boulder City, Nev., on Aug. 13, 2021. To help stave off another round of mandatory cutbacks, water leaders for Arizona, Nevada and California are preparing to sign an agreement on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021, that would voluntarily reduce water to the lower Colorado River basin states by 500,000 acre-feet for both 2022 and 2023.
AP Photo/John Locher, File
A buoy rests on the ground at a closed boat ramp on Lake Mead at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area near Boulder City, Nev., on Aug. 13, 2021.

A new podcast called “Parched” explores the complexities of the Colorado River Basin, at a time when persistent drought has sparked difficult discussions about water. Its goal is to shine a light on solutions. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with the podcast’s host Michael Elizabeth Sakas, a climate reporter at Colorado Public Radio.

Talk to me about some of the people you’ve talked with and places you’ve gone in order to put together this podcast and try to understand what’s going on with the Colorado river.

We wanted ‘Parched’ to feel like a road trip, to take people to the peoples and places that are using Colorado River water, to give people a sense of what this means for the millions of people across the Southwest, as we look at our reservoirs hitting all times low …. We visit the Colorado River Indian Tribes to talk with them about how they are adapting to a drier future with their farming operations. We visit Tucson to talk about water pricing and how raising water prices can make people actually use less water…. We go from the headwaters in Colorado down to Mexico and meet people and places along the way, people who are trying to figure out what we can do about this water crisis.

We’re now in the midst of these very intense negotiations about how to make water cuts on the Colorado. In one of your early episodes, you talk about getting everyone to the table. Tell me, who historically has been left out of these kinds of negotiations?

There are thirty Indigenous tribes in the Southwest, and they were entirely left out of the Compact that was signed 100 years ago…and that is having huge ramifications through today. Native American communities and reservations are 19 times more likely to not have indoor plumbing. This is all connected. Because it’s really this racist history of Western water law; taking water from people who were Indigenous to this country, to move it to the states to make those cities boom. There are ripple effects to that. That conversation is still going on today. Tribes are really fighting for structural legal inclusion in these discussions on how we all move forward with a drier river.

The federal government called for these fairly drastic cuts in water use, months and months ago. Why has it been so difficult to come to an agreement on how to do that?

None of these states want to give up water. Water equals growth, it equals economic viability, and people moving to the Southwest… It’s a very difficult time to figure out who is going to go with less. But that the reality that we’re facing, because we need to use water differently in the Southwest for us to be able to figure our way out of this crisis… And that’s really what ‘Parched’ is about, this podcast series we’re working on: How can we use water differently, what are the solutions?

What’s been your favorite so far? What’s the most innovative solution people have come up with?

I think the most innovative one, the one that feels like it has a lot of potential, is this idea around wastewater…. There’s been some recent engineering successes and regulation successes to be able to treat our wastewater and send it to a water treatment facility and then send it right back to the same taps in the same community… It’s treated up to really high-quality drinking water standards and returns back to you home, and it makes this drought resilient water supply, and people are very excited about it. It’s one of the more interesting ideas to learn about.

Michael, thank you so much for speaking with me.

Thank you for having me on.

Listen to the podcast here:

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.