Episode One: Wishing Up A River


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Apr 03, 2024

Episode One: Wishing Up A River

Download Transcript The last time I visited Hoover Dam it was 105 degrees outside. A summer heatwave. Just standing on top of the dam, it felt like somebody was holding a hair dryer a few inches from

Download Transcript

The last time I visited Hoover Dam it was 105 degrees outside. A summer heatwave. Just standing on top of the dam, it felt like somebody was holding a hair dryer a few inches from my face.

LUKE RUNYON: “All right, I think we’re working. I hope it’s not the heat that’s affecting it...”

I was out on the dam as one stop on a 10-day reporting road trip along the entire length of the Colorado River -- all 1,400 miles of it, from Colorado’s Rocky Mountains to the deserts of northern Mexico.

I was set up with my laptop and recorder on a concrete ledge on the very top of the massive dam. The day before it got up to 110 degrees. I had to put my phone in an air conditioned room before it would turn on.

RUNYON: “I got batteries specifically that could go up to 140 degrees, hoping that that was going to be...”

I’m not just talking to myself here, though I do tend to do that sometimes. This was the start of an interview. A radio host was on the other end of the phone. I was there to record myself talking about the giant white bath tub ring. I could see it for miles running around the edges of Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir and a key part of the Colorado River system. For the last 20-some years the ring has served as a stark white reminder of where water used to be, and just wasn’t any more.

RUNYON: “Yeah I am up here on top of Hoover Dam... which is the dam that holds back Lake Mead...”

It was the first of many interviews I did that summer. For months I was getting invitations to go on radio shows to explain just how bad things were getting on the Colorado River as its biggest reservoirs hit record lows. Photos of the bathtub ring were everywhere. The front pages of newspapers, CNN, local TV news.

NEWS CLIP: “Lake Powell continues to set new record lows every day.”

Which was driving lots of people, who were paying only casual attention til then...

NEWS CLIP: “A dire new projection for one of America’s largest reservoirs.”

...to suddenly want to know every detail of how we got into this mess...

NEWS CLIP: “It’s a lifeline for 40 million people and the 15 billion dollar a year agriculture industry that depends on it...”

...and hopefully get ideas on how to get ourselves out of it.


From KUNC, this is ‘Thirst Gap: Learning To Live With Less On The Colorado River.’ I’m Luke Runyon. This is episode one: “Wishing Up A River”

I’ve been covering water issues along the Colorado River for the last five years. I’ve seen the conversation change from “we should probably be worried about this” to “we’re getting a little more worried about this” to right now when the conversation sounds more like “this is a crisis spiraling out of control.”

The Colorado River is truly astounding. It’s the kind of natural wonder that inspires those over the top, old-timey government promotional videos...

ARCHIVAL TAPE: “Of all the rivers in the world, the Colorado is one of the most beautiful and most useful.

You can see the river best from an airplane. A few years ago I flew the length of it in a tiny Cessna. And I remember gawking out the window flying from Colorado to Mexico seeing just how arid the southwest is.

ARCHIVAL TAPE: “This river drains nearly a quarter of a million square miles of land, including parts of seven states...”

Deserts sprawl on either side of this thin blue thread that weaves its way through. Everything from massive cities to farms to plants and wildlife, all dependent on this relatively small, desert river.

The challenge of balancing the health of the river and our own needs has reached a precipice. All the science says the river is getting smaller. Which means our demands for water will have to shrink as well.

And we’ve created a lot of demands. In fact 40 million of us, about 1 in 10 Americans rely on this shrinking water supply. That includes giant cities like Denver, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas. Sprawling agricultural regions, like California’s Imperial Valley, or the fields of romaine lettuce around Yuma, Arizona. Which means even if you don’t live in the southwest, you probably eat the things that are grown here, irrigated by the Colorado River.

ARCHIVAL TAPE: “Melons! Another crop that thrives in Imperial Valley. These cantaloupes are shipped in refrigerator cars to markets all over the United States. Yet, only cactus and lizards could survive here without the Colorado water.”

Finding a way to live with less water isn’t easy. Conversations quickly turn to finger-pointing. Whose use of water is justified? And whose isn’t? And what are we willing to give up -- to sacrifice -- in order to bring our supply and demand back into balance? Those tradeoffs, that’s what I’m most interested in for this series. Because delving into those choices, that’s the conversation the southwest is going to be having for a while.

We’ll delve into those choices on a journey from the river’s headwaters to its end in northern Mexico. Along the way we’ll meet farmers feeling the pinch of water scarcity. We’ll spend time with boaters and environmental advocates at Lake Powell in Utah. We’ll move downstream to Las Vegas, a city that’s made thirsty grass enemy number one. We’ll hear from tribes fighting to have their water secured. And we’ll wrap up in northern Mexico, where the river’s final 100 miles dry up.

But first we start near the river’s headwaters in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

RUNYON: “Eric, how’s it going? Good to see you.”

ERIC KUHN: “Great to see you.”

RUNYON: “Eric, while we're walking, could I have you just introduce yourself like you would if you were meeting someone for the first time, your first and last name and, uh, a little bit about yourself.”

KUHN: “Yeah. I’m Eric Kuhn. I am a many-decade Colorado River water nerd.”

RUNYON: “Do you come to this park a lot?”

KUHN: “Well, historically, because I worked right over there, you know.”

Over there is a brick building right on the river’s banks, home to the Colorado River District. It’s a regional water agency in western Colorado. Eric ran it for more than 20 years.

Glenwood Springs is a tourist town in the Colorado Rockies with ice cream shops and hot springs. It smells of sulfur when you drive through on the interstate. It’s a chilly fall day when Eric and I meet.

RUNYON: “Okay. So we're here on a kind of a gravel walking path along the Colorado River and one of its tributaries, the Roaring Fork River, is coming in right here. What do you see when you look at this picture in front of us?”

KUHN: “Well, I see that here, that here we are about 150 miles downstream of the headwaters of the Colorado River. About a third of the water that originates in the Colorado River can be accounted for right at this spot.”

Just upstream of where we’re standing snow piles high on some of the Rocky Mountains’ most picturesque peaks -- the kinds that show up on computer desktop backgrounds. Before it winds its way through desert canyons, the river gets its start here as snow, skied upon at the glitzy resorts of Vail and Aspen and shoveled out of walkways in mountain communities throughout Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. Each spring and summer, all that snow melts and sends a slug of fresh water into the river. But warming temperatures from climate change have made that replenishing supply less reliable.

KUHN: “When I think of the Colorado River here what I’m thinking about is this represents where the water is coming from.”

RUNYON: “Do you kind of think of the world in watersheds now? Is that how you see landscapes? Like a lot of people see mountains and trees, but it sounds like to you everything is sort of a drainage, at least in this area.”

KUHN: “I think of watersheds and drainage basins. Yes. Yeah. And I actually think when I think of rivers, I think of, well, where's the water coming from and where's it going and what's happened to this river over the last 100 years? And it's really an interesting, interesting story.”

Like any good Coloradan, Eric is in sleek black activewear... like he either just finished a long bike ride, or could leave our interview at any moment to go on one. He’s a product of the Colorado River watershed, having grown up in Flagstaff, Arizona, a short drive from the Grand Canyon. Even now when he’s traveling across the country, the river basin calls him back.

KUHN: “When I go over the divide into the Colorado River basin, I go, oh, I'm home. [laughs] So yeah, I have an emotional tie to the river.”

RUNYON: ”How would you characterize the state of the Colorado River in this current moment that we're in?”

KUHN: “The current moment, a lot of people use the word crisis. I would use the word transition -- words transitioning to a crisis. The river is being significantly impacted by a changing climate and also impacted by what has been decades of very big growth in the West.”

In his retirement Eric has taken up writing. In 2021 he co-authored “Science Be Dammed.” That’s dammed with two M’s. The book is a detailed examination of how the river’s foundational agreement, the Colorado River Compact, came together.

The pact outlined which western states received how much Colorado River water and paved the way for the construction of Hoover Dam. The pact is the same one we use today, 100 years later. Eric and his co-author John Fleck of the University of New Mexico, discovered what went wrong in the making of the agreement including a lot of hubris and a heavy dose of wishful thinking. That's coming up after this break.


Before we get to the big agreement we probably should talk about what was happening in the Southwest at the turn of the 20th century.

Ok, so it’s around 1905. European settlers had spread to the most arid reaches of the country, spurred on by federal incentives for land. Indigenous peoples, like the Utes of what is today western Colorado and eastern Utah, had been forcibly removed and displaced from their homelands to make way for the southwest’s colonization.

And in turning the desert into an economic engine the federal government saw an opportunity to “reclaim” desert lands. The prevailing mindset was to turn what many saw as wastelands into useful and productive farmland.

But there was a problem. The Colorado River didn’t behave like a lot of other rivers. It flashed during monsoon rain storms. It flooded towns. It jumped its banks. Eric Kuhn says more and more of these new settlers -- particularly in southern California -- began to think of the river as a menace.

KUHN: “And it created a political movement to control the river, if you want to call it control this wild, raging river that had -- that was ten times the flow was ten times as high in the spring and early summer than it was in the late season. And at the same time, Southern California was developing and we were electrifying the nation. So there was a need for power generation.”

A giant dam -- a concrete plug right on the river itself -- would solve everyone’s problems at once.

KUHN: ”And it would store a large amount of water to control floods and regulate the river so people would have a more stable water supply.”

RUNYON: “But part of it was this notion that the river was wild and potentially destructive and unreliable, and that needed to be fixed.”

KUHN: “Needed to control nature. We needed to figure out a way to make this river from a menace to a natural resource, you know, to something that humans could use and rely on.”

All this talk of building a big dam became a source of anxiety among some of the fledgling states that had come to rely on it. States upstream like Colorado, Utah and Wyoming looked down toward the burgeoning metropolis of Los Angeles and the sprawling farm fields of southern California and grew worried. What if California’s growth used up all of the river’s water, leaving nothing for anyone else? And those upstream states were prepared to derail any big dam California wanted to build.

With that sense of mistrust and anxiety -- leaders from the seven southwestern U.S. states that rely on the Colorado River -- that’s Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California -- met with representatives from the federal government in 1922 to hammer out a deal.

KUHN: “Their idea was to, ‘We’ll divide up the river among seven states, we’ll divide up the consumptive use of the river, not the water itself. It's the use of the river.’ And by late January the first seven meetings, they realized that it was going to be too difficult to divide it up among -- divide the pie among seven parties. So they were struggling as to what to do. One of the reasons it was too difficult is because of just game theory. Everybody was coming to the table. If, you know, if they thought they needed 2 million acre-feet, they were going to ask for four, right? I mean, everyone does it. It's a part of the negotiation process.”

This idea of wishing for more water than actually existed is something we’ll come back to. But early on in these talks things had hit a stalemate. Until a guy named Arthur Powell Davis came up with an idea. Legally split the river into two basins. The Upper Basin would be made up of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico. The Lower Basin would be California, Nevada and Arizona. Davis was the chief engineer for the federal Reclamation Service at the time, which was tasked with helping small farmers to build water projects in the West.

KUHN: “He, in my view, he was the most influential person here because he had an agenda.. And what Arthur Powell Davis saw was an opportunity for his agency to build the largest dam in the world and to build the biggest power plant in the world, which became Hoover Dam.”

Davis’s two-basin idea broke the stalemate. But even then there was little agreement on what all should go into this document.

Eventually the negotiators from the seven states and the federal government found their way to an upscale retreat in the mountains outside Santa Fe, New Mexico called Bishop’s Lodge. The men -- and yes, they were all men -- gathered there in the fall of 1922 to hammer out the details of what would become the Colorado River Compact.

So let’s talk about who was at the table for those negotiations, who wasn’t, and why that matters.

At the table, we have eight white men, professionals, mostly engineers, lawyers and politicians.

Not at the table: nearly everyone else. No one from any Native American tribes who to this day hold rights to a significant amount of the river’s water. No one from Mexico, another key user. Also not there, anyone advocating for the environment. We were decades away from the modern environmental movement.

KUHN: “Stream flows, recreation, fishing. No one had that in mind. Okay? I mean, that was I don't even think you don't find the word mentioned, you know, recreation or in-stream flows in the compact. You can't, you don't even find it in the correspondence. They were dividing up the consumptive use. That attitude was unanimous, okay. There was nobody in the room that had a different view of that.”

RUNYON: ”There was no one saying, ‘But what about the environment?’ Like, that didn't exist.”

KUHN: “It did not exist.”

Another person not at the table was a scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey named E.C. LaRue, though he loomed large in the background. He had spent years studying how much water rivers carried in the arid West. And he’d figured out that the region was in a historically wet period at the time the Compact was coming together. By looking at records, LaRue knew that the wet times were not likely to last. He published studies in the years leading up the compact negotiations -- showing that Western leaders were about to dramatically over-estimate its key water source. But he didn’t do a great job of sharing these findings. Eric calls him prickly.

KUHN: “He sort of had the approach of, ‘I'm the expert, I will tell you.’ And, you know, he was unwilling to listen. Had he been a little more like Arthur Powell Davis, who is more of a politician, he might have had a lot more influence on how the river was developed.”

LaRue warned anyone who would listen that the negotiators had too much water on paper, and the Colorado River couldn’t provide everything they wanted it to.

KUHN: ”The river was overallocated from the beginning and that could have been avoided had they listened to E.C. LaRue.”

This is how we got into our current crisis. A number on a page became a promise to millions of people in the Southwest. The negotiators wished up a river that wasn’t real to make their jobs easier. Those promises of endless water supply are still in play today. That is what is causing the bathtub ring at Lake Mead to grow: demand outstripping supply.

One piece of conventional wisdom you often hear about the Colorado River is that the negotiators couldn’t have known the dry times to come. But Eric says it’s just not true. They knew the river’s limits and thought human engineering could overcome them.

KUHN: “If everyone agrees that there's enough water to meet all our needs, dividing it up is going to be very easy. If there's not enough water, then it's going to create complications.”

RUNYON: “So part of it was it was just politically feasible to divide up a larger river on paper than what actually existed in reality?”

KUHN: “Absolutely.”

It’s easy to dunk on the compact negotiators for their wishful thinking. Eric says we shouldn’t force them to carry all of the blame. By the 1950s, before some of the river’s most ambitious projects had been built, it was even clearer that the water was being stretched too thin. But the region’s leaders pretended that it wasn’t and kept on building, dropping more straws into the river in the process. Blame the people then too while you’re at it, Eric says.

Or point the finger not at a person, but at a cultural attitude of the time, that rivers existed solely to serve people. The water was ours to use. To not use it would be wasteful.

RUNYON: “Do you think the compact is still useful? There's a school of thought and there's a group of people who say, maybe we should just toss it out and start anew.”

KUHN: “Well, I'm of the view that compact is useful, that because paragraph one, the purpose of it is that an equitable distribution or a division of the use of the waters and in the last page has seven signature -- eight signatures on it. So in my view of the compact is that we're going to ignore everything but the purpose of the compact and the signature page.”

Meaning, the most important thing the compact did was that it created some basis for agreement even if it got the details wrong.

That basis for agreement is even more essential now because of the dire straits in which the river finds itself. A loss of hydropower at the river’s biggest dams is no longer a hypothetical. Without changes to our use we can see it coming.

Using less water, when we’ve become so dependent on it, just cuts to the core. We hate being told we can’t have something. And because of that, much of the negotiation over the river’s future has hit a stalemate.

Eric says at a certain point something will have to give because a day will come when there just won’t be enough water in the river.

KUHN: “I kind of have the view that ultimately we have no choice but to use the water that nature provides us. Ultimately, we have no choice but to balance the supply and demands.”

Finding that balance is tricky. It requires hard choices. The tradeoffs are real. And ultimately, we’re all going to have to learn to live with less on the Colorado River.

Next time on Thirst Gap.

WATERS: “We’re sitting here in this valley with some of the oldest water rights on the Colorado River, we’ve always had plenty of water.”

We begin our journey in Western Colorado, not far from the river’s headwaters where a group of farmers has already tested out one way to use less water with mixed results.

HARRIS: “Nobody can do anything on the river without affecting everyone else. So we can all be bad guys. Maybe we can all be good guys.”

Why it’s so hard to get agriculture to tighten its water budget. That’s next time on Thirst Gap from KUNC.

Thirst Gap is a production of KUNC, brought to you by the Colorado Water Center and the Colorado State University Office of Engagement and Extension, with additional support from the Walton Family Foundation and the Water Desk at the University of Colorado Boulder. It was written and reported by me, Luke Runyon. Editing by Johanna Zorn. Our theme song was composed by Jason Paton, who also sound designed and mixed the episode. Ashley Jefcoat, Jennifer Coombes and Natalie Skowlund are our digital editors. Sean Corcoran is KUNC’s news director. Tammy Terwelp is KUNC’s president and CEO.

Special thanks to:

Alex Hager

Elliot Ross

Stephanie Daniel

Desmond O’BoyleRobert Leja

Kim Rais

Jen Prall

To learn more about the Colorado River, go to kunc.org/thirstgap or check out the show notes for a link.