How to Solve the Water Crisis in the West (with Luke Runyon)

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The seven states that rely on the Colorado River for the bulk of their water supply can’t agree on how to share the depleting resource. It’s a scary, interesting, and messy lesson on how to live amid climate change-induced scarcities. Andy speaks with reporter Luke Runyon, who covers the Colorado River for southwestern NPR stations, about the roots of the current crisis and the dramatic decision our country must make around how to live with less water.

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Andy Slavitt, Luke Runyon

Andy Slavitt  00:18

This is IN THE BUBBLE with Andy Slavitt. Welcome. And please don’t forget to email me, I always love hearing from you it was just reading through a bunch of your emails this morning. Really appreciate getting them. It’s really interesting reflection about how many things in the world that feels like we have to learn to become expert at, particularly as the climate changes. We see things like pandemics, we require things to change. And, you know, I think the alternative to sticking your head in the sand is getting actual facts, listening to actual experts. Which reminds me, I want to come back and talk to you about a coffee mug I have for you speaking of actual facts, and actual experts. And so I wanted to do an episode today on the Colorado River, you might ask yourself, gee, this sounds like a dry topic. That’s a dad joke. This might sound like something you don’t really need to know about. But it is something that I think it’s really interesting to discuss, at least in my opinion, for a couple of reasons. One is the most basic reason that we essentially in part due to climate change, in part due to poor planning part just due to all the demands, are going to have a dramatic decision to make around how we get by with a lot less water that basically supplies the entire Southwest of this country, and much of the fruit vegetables, quite honestly, that people around the country eat. So we should care on that level. But we should also care at a slightly more interesting question as well, which is that we are now facing decisions to make because our resources are getting scarce. And this is going to happen to us during climate change around where should the precious supply of water go? Should it be going to personal use? Should it be going to crops? How do we deal with this at a stage of crisis. And right now, there are seven states, that who all get water from the Colorado River, who have not been able to come up with an agreement and the federal government has just come in and attempted to impose its will, it’s gonna get interesting, and it’s gonna get messy. But I think in it, there’s also going to be a lesson for how we think about making these kinds of decisions. When really, we’re going to be pitted against one another, pitted against one another. Because people are essentially trying to live their lives in a normal way. And it is going to God knows through COVID We all learned how easy it is to make enemies of one another, when in fact, we’re all dealing with a very similar challenge. And I think you’ll find as I introduce my guest, that surprisingly, there are actual solutions. There are actual ways to work on this that are better than others. The guy we have on the show today is Luke Runyon he’s been covering the Colorado River for five years. And it’s a six part podcast on this that launched this week called thirst gap. So if you listen to this, and you’re still thirsty for more, you have a place to go. I think it really liked him. He has been writing about and doing public media, public radio kinds of stories about Colorado River for some time. And it’s, I find it fascinating. And it’s someone who, again, is not an expert in any of these things. I think the best way to get there is not to stick your head in the sand, but to listen to people who understand this stuff who can explain it well, who can give us actual facts without an agenda. And then we get more informed and I will say I left this conversation. And I think you will too, with a sense of understanding and calm but I didn’t have going in. So when it gets to him, but first I’m gonna talk about that coffee mug, and T shirt we now have available to you. Coffee mugs and T shirts. You’ve been asking for them from in the bubble. There’s a link to it in our show notes. You will be so stylish and so in demand and so well thought of when you wear this t shirt around the house to the gym. Bring that coffee mug with you wherever you go. That I’m so excited for you as a listener of this show, to finally have access to such high quality coffee mugs and T shirts. All you need you can order as many as you want today only, you can order as many as you want no limit, okay? Tomorrow, there might be a limit, because we might sell a lot. Okay, back to Luke back to the show. I think you’d like this.

Andy Slavitt  05:21

Luke, welcome to the bubble.

Luke Runyon  05:22

Hey, thanks for having me.

Andy Slavitt  05:24

So as I was explaining in my intro, it feels like we now all have to become experts in things that we could just sort of leave in the background and leave to chance, you have spent time thinking about the Colorado River. Why so Colorado were so important to the country?

Luke Runyon  05:43

Well, for the American Southwest, it really is this kind of critical lifeline on many fronts. So the Colorado River is a drinking water supply for some of the Southwest’s biggest cities, Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Tucson, Salt Lake City all rely on the river in some way for their drinking water supply. It also provides water for a sprawling agricultural economy. So even if you’re not living in the southwest, you’re, you know, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re eating the things that are irrigated by the Colorado River. And, you know, it’s also the water supply for about 30 federally recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin. So really, I mean, it’s a part of the country that is very arid, and this river has been tasked with a lot of jobs, in order to meet the water needs for this very arid portion of the country.

Andy Slavitt  06:42

Give us some of the history, we’re gonna get into the current state. But it may be useful as we understand what’s happening, and what could happen to trace the history, a little bit the history of the river, from the most monumental occasions, the agreements that have been put in place into how the water will be used?

Luke Runyon  07:03

Sure. So, you know, we kind of have to go back to when the Southwest was first being settled. And that was kind of the turn of the 20th century, there were these federal incentives for land. So lots of people were moving out west to try their hand at becoming farmers in the arid southwest. And really, it kind of all came to a head in the early 1920s, when there was this strong push from the federal government to build water infrastructure projects in the Southwest in order to support the small farmers that had all moved down there and realized that there wasn’t actually enough water, to do all the things that that they wanted to do down there. And the combination of some of that was the 1922, Colorado River Compact. So this is kind of the foundational agreement that was put together by the 7 US states that rely on the river, and that’s Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California, along with the federal government, they all sat down and hashed out, okay, we have this river, everyone wants a piece of it, how do you actually go about sharing this critical water supply. And what they ended up doing was over allocating the river right from the very beginning. So they put more water on paper, essentially, in the form of water rights than was ever going to exist in the river itself. And it took decades for this gap between water supply and demand to actually come to fruition.

Andy Slavitt  08:42

So, this is something in absence of even climate change, or overuse. That was sort of a built in problem from the beginning, they allocated more water than was going to be available. You’re saying?

Luke Runyon  08:56

Yeah, this was baked in from basically the very first agreement, the Colorado River Compact, put more water on paper than we were ever really going to have in reality. And it was this feeling that human engineering could overcome nature’s limits, that, you know, we could build these massive reservoirs. And that was going to help us get through dry times. But really, what we’re seeing now is, you know, the river is shrinking and our demands have not shrank to meet that shrinking supply. And now, sort of the problem is accelerating at a pace that maybe people weren’t anticipating.

Andy Slavitt  09:35

Can you give us a sense of the size of the gap as it exists today? How much supply is it versus how much demand? How short are we?

Luke Runyon  09:45

We’re quite short. You know, the gap between supply and demand is already large, and it’s getting larger because of climate changes effects on the river. It’s shrinking the supply. It’s kind of hard to talk about out these volumes of water with you know, people who aren’t so down into the weeds and in the water world.

Andy Slavitt  10:06

Get us into the weeds bring us into the weeds or into the air into the water or whatever the right analogy is.

Luke Runyon  10:11

So you know, most people are familiar with gallons, but water people use acre feet. So this is a unit of measurement in the water world where imagine an acre, so about the size of a football field.

Andy Slavitt  10:25

43,000 square feet or so?

Luke Runyon  10:28

Filled up to one foot with water, okay. And that volume is what people call an acre foot.

Andy Slavitt  10:37

Acre foot, okay?

Luke Runyon  10:38

It’s more than, you know, 300,000 gallons of water. So there’s a lot of water in one acre foot. And the gap between supply and demand on the river net right now is in the millions of acre feet. So we’re talking about a tremendous volume of water, like you could cancel out, say the entire state of Colorado’s use from the Colorado River and still not meet the gap between supply and demand.

Andy Slavitt  11:08

So you said the gap is millions of acre feet? Is that per year or projected over the life of the river? How do people talk about the demand versus supply?

Luke Runyon  11:21

It really is kind of like a long term problem. And this is why you know people kind of refer to this as a slow moving train wreck. Like you can see it if you know all of this is over like 10 year rolling averages. And so when you’re talking to folks, a lot of times they can say like, you know, we’ve seen this coming for years and years and years. And just nobody has actually wanted to deal with this. Well, once you start getting back to back dry years, all of the slack in the system. So like the water that we’ve stored up gets used. And all of a sudden, you know that train that people saw off in the distance is now much closer. And I think it’s causing people to feel a new sense of urgency to deal with this problem.

Andy Slavitt  12:10

Okay, let me take a quick break. And then we’ll come back and talk about all the competing interests. And what consequences of us managing this gap are, we’ll be right back with Luke. We’re back with Luke, you were just telling us before the break Luke, that we have this pretty significant gap, measured in acre feet, which is by the way, I’m going to use acre feet now I’m going to drop it into all kinds of conversations to show my knowledge because I know that I’ll sound like an expert, just kind of what we’re trying to do on this show everybody who’s listening, just use acre feet today. And you’re just gonna sound really wise, thanks to Luke, but we have this gap. And, you know, I help us think about at a sort of practical way, that various ways of considering what this gap means. You know, what comes to mind, for example, is agricultural needs versus drinking water needs. What comes to mind, obviously, we’ll talk about is one state’s needs versus another state’s needs. Before we think about like solutions and agreements and everything, help us think about the right way to contextualize what this gap is going to mean for those of us living in those states.

Luke Runyon  13:47

Sure. The way that I usually think about it that I have found is helpful is really this is a supply and demand issue. We’ve created a ton of demand for water in the southwest. Some of that is in the form of these large cities. Some of that is in the form of these, you know, sprawling agricultural areas. And really, the problem that has presented itself is matching our demand for water to that supply.

Andy Slavitt  14:14

Let’s say we were going to get there by reducing demand just as just to theoretically, answer the question, how much would we have to cut down on our water use across all those sources? Forget how we allocated it. For us to say you know what we’re in equilibrium. We’re now using about as much as the river can supply, is that 10%, 20% or 50%?

Luke Runyon  14:35

It’s probably somewhere between 20 and 30% of the total water supply for the region. And that’s a huge amount of water and, and those conversations get really heated really quickly. Because everyone in the basin feels like their water use is completely justified. And everyone else is the one who’s going to need to be the one who has to cut back on Who’s gonna have to feel the pain of scarcity? And so a lot of times these conversations, you know, the finger pointing happens fast. And whether that’s, you know, where I live here in Colorado down towards California and Los Angeles and, and the farm fields of Southern California, or whether that’s, you know, farmers in California and Arizona pointing the finger back towards Colorado, I mean, this conversation that the region is having is incredibly tense.

Andy Slavitt  15:32

Well, look, we all settled, we all settled in a desert. I mean, I’m in Southern California, by the way, right now. So you and I can arm wrestle, we could solve it right here. Although I’ll probably lose, and people in Southern California will be mad at me. But there’s two ways to cut 25% Just to do simple math for a second. One is to cut everybody by 25%. And the other is to cut some people by 100%. And some people not at all. So I can, I’m just setting up this dynamic that you’re talking about. Which is to say, you know, if you’re growing crops that are feeding the country, you can imagine people saying, hey, I’m feeding the country, really important crops, so you can’t cut me. And likewise, you could say, hey, I’m going to tribal nation, and I’ve got a treaty from the US government committing this water to me, or when I bought my house in Phoenix, no one told me there was going to be no running water. We’ve been, you know, been deluding ourselves forever. So I actually think while this does end up getting cast as one party versus another, nobody really is doing anything wrong. You know, they’re not asking for gold or oil to get rich. Off of they’re asking for water to either run their farm, or just basically, basically, yes, there. We have neighbors that overwater their lawn. So I’m gonna give them up to but for the most part, this is a situation of man versus nature, man versus man to go back to sixth grade theme class.

Luke Runyon  17:09

Yeah, and we’ll end the situation that you’re, you’re posing thereof, you know, some people getting cut off 100%, or people taking a hair cut across the board. This isn’t like a theoretical thing right now, the federal government has put forward a proposal that would essentially do either one of those things. And so we’re way past the era of hypotheticals where now we have plans on paper that do some of those things.

Andy Slavitt  17:37

So I want to get into that deal. But to do that, I want to actually can you set up for us how the water rights have worked historically, this notion of senior rights, like how are decisions made today? Because there is a there is an allocation process, I assume? How did states rake that process? And then how is the tradeoff between drinking water agriculture? And you know, tribal lands? Like how are those things considered, historically?

Luke Runyon  18:10

So the whole West functions on something called prior appropriation, that’s the legal system that we use in order to manage scarce water supplies. And it mostly functions on time. So the most important thing in the prior appropriation system is when you first started using a water right, and the older the right, the more protected it is. So those are referred to as like senior users. And then everybody who came after you is a junior user, those senior users get their full share before everyone else. Meaning if you’re a very junior user, there could be times where you don’t get any water at all, because the senior is using all of it, the senior users are getting all of their share before you get anything. And the way that this kind of functions on the Colorado River scale is that some states have higher priority than other states along the river. So like take the lower basin of the Colorado River, that’s California, Arizona, and Nevada. California has the most senior rights to the Colorado River, meaning in a shortage situation. Arizona is going to feel the steepest cuts, the greatest burden of shortage under this system would be felt by Arizona before California would really feel anything. And you know, there’s plenty of people now who are looking at this system and saying well that’s wholly unfair. How are you going to cut off the entire Phoenix metro area before you know any? Any farmer or city in California feels anything?

Andy Slavitt  19:55

Got it. Do any of these areas have alternative sources that They could be used if they were invested in to replace the water that they would lose from the Colorado River?

Luke Runyon  20:07

It depends on where you’re talking about. You know, groundwater in a lot of places is a source. But I guess you could look at it in like the Phoenix metro area, they have a large aquifer that is underneath the Phoenix metro area. But the reason why they started tapping into the Colorado River is because their aquifer was drying up. And they saw the Colorado River as a more renewable supply. And that’s no longer the case. As you know, some of the scarcity along the Colorado River is taking hold. Now the some areas in Arizona are actually looking at turning back and relying more on groundwater. So the whole system is really connected in this way that makes it makes it difficult to point to another water source and say like, aha, that’s the solution to our problem.

Andy Slavitt  20:55

So I thought I was going to discover a silver bullet right here on the podcast.

Luke Runyon  20:59

my email inbox from listeners will say that there are plenty of silver bullet.

Andy Slavitt  21:06

Great. So it sounds like we’re gonna solve this problem right here on the show. But not until after we take one final break. And we’re gonna come back and talk about the best ideas to get us out of this. And quite honestly think about how we deal with these climate challenges in other dimensions, we’ll be right back. I want to get into this question now, of how we make these very difficult choices. Because I think in some ways, it’s not only vital for the communities we’re talking about. But in some ways, maybe precedent setting for the kinds of decisions we have to make, as climate impacts us across the globe, very difficult choices where people live, how we prioritize one community over the other, the political power and financial power that is often exercised the role of the federal government versus states to work some of these things out, all those things seem to come to play here, which makes this a fascinating topic. So as you mentioned, the federal government recently stepped in and said that they’re going to do something different. And I believe what they what they proposed doing was to basically get rid of this whole notion of senior water rights and do something different. Can you talk about that proposal and what the force of law is and where things currently stand. And maybe it’s worth even backing up and talking about where the states had had been coming to on their own before the federal government got involved?

Luke Runyon  22:59

Sure. So maybe I’ll go back briefly to last summer, things were looking very grim on the Colorado River, the loss of hydropower, at some of its biggest dams was like a very real threat.

Andy Slavitt  23:15

This is what creates a dead pool that was called the Dead Pool?

Luke Runyon  23:18

That’s even lower. That’s when you can’t pass water through the dam physically. And water is kind of trapped behind the dam. But loss of hydropower would come sooner it could. And so that was a very real threat, the federal government saw that in its models and said we need to do something in order for the system to stay functioning. And so they kicked in to this kind of bureaucratic process to look at the rules by which the river is managed. And they said last summer, that it was going to take between two to 4 million acre feet in cuts in order to bring the river into balance, just in the short term. That’s what was needed in order to keep the river from, you know, reaching this like very critical phase. So that was sort of a gauntlet thrown to the states saying, here’s what we say we need. We need this level of commitment for cutbacks. Can you do it?

Andy Slavitt  24:20

Is that about a 25% cut?

Luke Runyon  24:22

Just about, yeah. And they gave a deadline for later in the summer in order for the states to negotiate and come back with how they were going to share that cut. The states couldn’t agree. And the federal government, I think, didn’t want to have their bluff called and so they started putting forward their own process to come up with some alternatives if the states weren’t going to be able to meet this charge to cut this two to 4 million acre feet. So you kind of had like two things happening in parallel. You had the federal government that started going through this very bureaucratic process to model all of these different alternatives. And then you had the states that are having their own conversations about how they might share this cut back. And what we saw most recently was the federal government announcing some of the alternatives that they had come up with. One was to reduce uses based on that water rights system. So based on like levels of seniority, basically like kind of the status quo. So most of the burden would fall on Arizona, before it ever really hit California. And all of this is playing out in the lower basin, other Colorado. The other alternative, which is more controversial, is to do this, across the board, pro rata cut back for all water users in the Lower Colorado River Basin. And this is the alternative that is more favored by Arizona and Nevada, because it would force California to take a larger cut back in times of shortage.

Andy Slavitt  26:06

Is it safe to say that the agreements that the states were able to reach on their own had one holdout California, and that the current state of affairs is California versus these other states and brokering some sort of agreement between the sort of quote unquote, fair version and the historical senior water? Right version?

Luke Runyon  26:29

Yeah, when the federal government put out for like, alright, states, we want to see what you come up with, they had received two competing proposals. So one was basically the California proposal, and one was what they called the six state consensus. And so that the way that you framed it there, I think he’s been pretty accurate. You know, a lot of fingers have been pointing towards California to say, like, you’re the largest user on the river. Any volume of water that California can commit to conserving is going to go a long way towards bringing the river into balance, just because there’s so much water to work with there, you know, more than 4 million acre feet of water goes to California, if you can start trimming back and in within California’s allocation, you can get a lot closer to coming up with a solution.

Andy Slavitt  27:22

This may be beyond either of our ability to think through but how does a, let’s say a Phoenix, or a Los Angeles deal with 25% less water? Like is it possible? What does that look like? Or what are their uses? That can be eliminated in order to have enough drinking water? Like eliminating all the lawns? Does that get you there? And what are the kinds of choices of consequences that we have? If let’s say there was a 25%, across the board cut in water in the southwest.

Luke Runyon  27:55

A lot of the focus in municipal water use in the southwest right now is on outdoor use. So Las Vegas has actually been a real leader in this space. They’ve gone through the process of, you know, incentivizing people to rip out their lawns, mandating certain types of grass to be illegal and removed. Other cities haven’t gone as far or been as aggressive.

Andy Slavitt  28:22

Does that get you to a 25% cut, does outside water use limitation get you as far as you need,

Luke Runyon  28:28

It gets probably gets you pretty close. I mean, Las Vegas has been able to grow while its supply is under threat. Because if you think about it, like the water that gets used inside of a home, for the most part all returns to a water treatment plant. And then that gets put back into a river. It’s really not like a net loss. The loss for a city’s water supply comes when it’s sprayed outside and then evaporates and it doesn’t return anywhere. That’s a good point. What you’re seeing more too is cities investing in water recycling facilities. And you know, some people refer to this as toilet to tap or gray water treatment systems. And they’re super expensive, but a lot of cities are seeing them as a way out of this. If you can reuse water within a city multiple times. That’s a way to make your whole supply more secure.

Andy Slavitt  29:26

So you’ve just talked about how it’s possible for say, a city and municipality to preserve water by limiting outdoor use, but a large portion of this water I don’t know how much you can tell us goes towards these farms you talked about in Southern California. And they use a lot more water than a household does, does this just mean that we’re gonna have to see a reduction in crops by 25% Or is there something here that that can be done?

Luke Runyon  29:58

I think there’s probably a few strategies And it depends on if you’re looking in the short term or the long term. So in the short term in this kind of like emergency phase of where the river is right now, there are programs that are getting rolled out that essentially pay farmers not to farm. So the you get a check from your local irrigation district that is coming through federal funds or, or something like that. And then that water that you would have used as a farmer goes downstream, it fills up, you know, Lake Mead or Lake Powell. And so that’s getting rolled out, you know, it’s been tested in a small scale way. But it’s getting rolled out in a large scale way now, you could incentivize farmers to grow less thirsty crops, but it’s really difficult to change people’s behavior. And that applies to for farmers, you know, it’s like, if you’ve been doing something for generations, it’s very difficult to, for someone to walk in and say, Well, I know what’s best for your operation. And I think that you should change the way that you’re growing crops or the way that you’re doing things. So, you know, it’s a challenge, but it’s going to be very difficult to meet the gap between supply and demand on the river without some reductions in agriculture. It just can’t be done purely on the municipal side.

Andy Slavitt  31:17

I was talking to Andy Beshear, who’s the governor of Kentucky, who says over the long term, they believe they’ve got plans that Kentucky is going to take over, it can take over a lot of the growing and it’s currently dead in California, because the climate will be more favorable to growing certain crops there that there weren’t before. And, you know, the reason why California was obviously attractive at the outset, I mean, because you could we should all ask ourselves, why would we be growing these crops in the desert anyway? You know, and obviously, 340 50 days a sudden provides real advantages. But there are other parts of the country. And I’m sure Kentucky’s only one of many that I’ve said, Hey, we may be the future breadbasket of the country.

Luke Runyon  31:58

Maybe, I mean, it’s not an accident, why we have agriculture in parts of the Desert Southwest. I mean, they are highly productive farmlands and at least in parts of southern California, you’re growing crops in the what, what was the delta of the Colorado River, so it’s highly productive. Farmland, you go down to like Yuma, Arizona, right on the border. And yeah, they can grow pretty much 12 months out of the year, one of the last times I was down there, I was visiting with a farmer. And he was kind of explaining his crop rotation. So the different crops that he was growing on this one patch of land, and it’s basically 12 months out of the year, he was like, I’m growing semolina wheat, and then I’m pulling those out, and I’m growing hay, and then I’m pulling that out. And then I’m putting in melons. So like, it’s easy, I think, for people who don’t live in the desert to point the finger and say, like, Oh, why are we Why do we have cities there? Why do we have farms there, but it’s no accident. It’s like, we all benefit from the fact that there’s agriculture happening in parts of the Colorado River Basin, our diets would probably have to change if we weren’t growing crops in Southern California and southern Arizona.

Andy Slavitt  33:03

I think that’s a critical point. You know, and I think this is true with a lot of things, you know, climate, you go back to say, Well, why do people live in hurricane zones and New Orleans and so forth? It’s all very easy for us to look in other directions. Still, the question has to be asked over the long term, you know, if it becomes more efficient, because of climate change, to grow crops, in other locations, that, you know, there’s gonna have to be some sort of transition. I want to kind of close by asking you about the river itself. Because, you know, I think for a lot of us, like the first image that comes to mind, if you were to say, we are running out of water in the Colorado River is not water rights and farm rights or water. It’s actually the river itself. It’s the beauty of the river in 1991. My dad and I did a river rafting trip on the Colorado River. And I’ve lost my dad about 20 years ago. So the trip, you know, is can etched into my into my memory because it was one of the times when he and I were just together the two of us. But I think about the natural beauty in the Colorado River. And I think this applies probably to the sense of mourning we have about nature, whether it’s the Great Barrier Reef or other things that are getting impacted by the climate. You live in Colorado, can you help us understand what is actually happening to the eye test of the river?

Luke Runyon  34:37

Yeah, and maybe I can speak to it in a few levels. So you know, this winter has been very wet, but the last three years were very dry in the Colorado River Basin. And you could see it plain and simple when you went to go look at the river and whether that was you know, it was receiving runoff from wildfires. Uh, so you know, had these massive wildfires, you’d get rain on top of that, it would basically send this black sludge into the river. And then it just kind of compounds upon itself, then you’d have these massive fish kills. So you know, going along the river and seeing just dead fish for, for miles, or, you know, seeing streams, practically dry up or springs dry up, it’s heartbreaking to see because, you know, this region is so dependent on this water, and not just the people or the farmers, like you mentioned, but like plants and wildlife are all dependent on this river. And as it is stretched and pulled, I think the environment is one of those things that is the first to feel that pressure. Really, this river is kind of a lifeline for the natural world in this in this area as well. And it’s suffering too.

Andy Slavitt  35:56

What does the river look like today, compared to when was on 1991?

Luke Runyon  36:01

Well, this year, it’s actually probably going to look pretty good, because we had a we had an extremely wet winter in the Colorado Rockies. But you know, you go to like some portions of I did a trip down to Lake Powell recently, which is at its lowest point ever, and this is, you know, second largest reservoir in the country. And you go to the upper reaches of Lake Powell. So you’re essentially standing on the former lake bottom, that’s how low it is. You have these huge sediment deposits, and the river is carving through this mud Canyon, essentially. And you have the kind of like crazy craggy, gnarled clay formations coming out of the river, it’s a pretty wild place, and you’re only seeing it because it’s at a record low. And, you know, I think that you’re gonna see more of that as these systems get put under additional pressure from climate change.

Andy Slavitt 36:55

So give me the record rain to shear, you know, that’s one of the impetuses I think, for people to say, hey, maybe this is there’s a little more to work with to get a deal done between the states, because river has recovered some.

Luke Runyon  37:07

It definitely alleviated some pressure on the people who are negotiating this. And part of it is just like I mentioned that that crisis point was these dams losing hydropower production in the very near future, that’s not going to happen, at least within the next year, because of the wet winter that we’re having right now. But I do think, you know, one thing that I hear from water managers every now and then is like, don’t waste a drought. And I think there’s this feeling among the people who are negotiating, like, the times when it’s dry, is when you can actually get things done. And then the wet times are where you kind of come back to the table, it gives you a little bit of breathing space. And hopefully, you can use that time to come up with better solutions.

Andy Slavitt  37:55

So the problem is still there. But there’s a little more to work with, is the sets of things.

Luke Runyon  37:59

That’s the talking point that I’m hearing is, is you know, we have some more time to be thinking about how we want to approach this problem. Probably not as much time as you think because things can change on a dime in the Colorado River Basin, all it takes is a six month period have hot and dry to undo just one wet winter. And really, we’ve been in dry conditions for more than 20 years now. So you’re gonna have three or four dry years in a row, one wet year is not going to fix that you really need like sustained changes in order to in order to start fixing that problem. And we just haven’t seen that

Andy Slavitt  38:39

the whole conversation reminds me how we don’t start getting creative until there’s a crisis it gives give you the closing thought is, you know, to what extent do you think what happens here with water is emblematic of lots of resource decisions that we’re going to have to make. Is this just the kind of thing that we ought to be preparing ourselves to figure out how to get good at dealing with creating a best practice for?

Luke Runyon  39:09

I certainly think so. You know, I’ve been covering the Colorado River for more than five years now. And I’m not totally doom and gloom about the whole situation, I think the river itself is not going to completely dry up, it’s just going to give us a certain amount of water that we’re going to have to deal with. And really, it’s up to the whole region, you know, the cities and, and agricultural areas in the southwest that are just going to have to learn to live with less water. That’s really kind of what we as a society have control over we have control over our demand for water and it’s going to take hard decisions and hard conversations in order to figure out what’s the best use of the limited water supplies that we have. But I think we’re already having that conversation. And I think, you know, it can kind of only go up from there the fact that we’re already building these collaborations these partnerships throughout the region in order figure out this this hard problem.

Andy Slavitt  40:09

Luke Runyan, thanks for coming in the bubble. I think we can arm wrestle now for Colorado versus California’s water.

Luke Runyon  40:15

Okay, great. Thanks.

Andy Slavitt  40:31

Okay, I hope you enjoyed this. If you ever thought about the fact that we’ve got so many diseases out there that need cures, and like 1000s, and 1000s, and 1000s of medications, that are all designed to just solve one problem, and that those medications might actually solve more than one problem, like you hear these stories about how we accidentally cure things by finding these other medications. Well, maybe you haven’t thought about that a lot. Well, I haven’t either. But I did start to think about it, and thought we should do a show on it because it turns out and you can hear an amazing story from somebody who was literally dying and decided to go and see if he could find a drug that was already approved because he didn’t have any time. It’s a young man that would save his life. And what he found I think it transformed the way we think about medicines. Truly. That’s Monday’s show. Okay, go buy a coffee mug or a t shirt. Talk to him Monday. Have a great weekend.

CREDITS  41:43

Thanks for listening to IN THE BUBBLE. We’re a production of Lemonada Media. Kathryn Barnes, Jackie Harris and Kyle Shiely produced our show, and they’re great. Our mix is by Noah Smith and James Barber, and they’re great, too. Steve Nelson is the vice president of the weekly content, and he’s okay, too. And of course, the ultimate bosses, Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs, they executive produced the show, we love them dearly. Our theme was composed by Dan Molad and Oliver Hill, with additional music by Ivan Kuraev. You can find out more about our show on social media at @LemonadaMedia where you’ll also get the transcript of the show. And you can find me at @ASlavitt on Twitter. If you like what you heard today, why don’t you tell your friends to listen as well, and get them to write a review. Thanks so much, talk to you next time.

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