A Conversation About The Future Of Water

May 28, 2016
Originally published on May 29, 2016 6:19 pm

As part of the Going There series, Michel Martin traveled to Fort Collins, Colo. to host a live storytelling event about owning water and dealing with a future where water may be scarce. The conversation was held in partnership with member station KUNC. It tackled the water issues in the Western United States while also highlighting the water crisis in Flint, Mich. and the challenges faced by Native American communities.

The event featured panelists including author Paolo Bacigalupi, rancher Kathleen Curry, Tribal energy and economic consultant Roger Fragua, Colorado state historian Patty Limerick and clean water activist Melissa Mays. The event also featured performances by the Seven Falls Indian Hoop Dancers and poet Lori Howe.

You can watch the full event here.

Interview Highlights:

Limerick on where the West stands now with its water resources

What used to work pretty darn well was to do studies of water. Precipitation patterns, chart goes out and look at what's likely in the future. Now there's no such probability, there's no such new way of appraising where we are and predicting it. So, it's unsettling and it's uncomfortable and it is a spectacular chance to think and to listen and to pay attention to each other. And to look at our habits and our customs and to say, are those necessary? Are those the way we have to be? Do we have more choice?

Bacigalupi on how growing up in the west affected the way he understands water scarcity

I also come from the western slope and so I grew up seeing where my water comes from. I can see the mountains, I can see how much snow is on them. I see that water flow through the Fire Mountain Canal where my family has a few shares that then water our properties. You can see what you grow depending on this very specific set of water systems. You also see that during a drought year and you know there's going to be a call on the river. What happens is, there's still water in the river, but you can't touch it. You have to watch it flow down to someone else who owns a more senior right than you do and we have very junior rights. The way that water gets allocated is that the senior rights gets all of theirs and the junior rights gets none of theirs in a drought situation, in a scarcity situation. So, you grow up seeing that. You're aware of it. The idea that past data would not necessarily predict what our future experience would be for me as a writer was really, really rich because there's so many question marks out there.

Curry on current conflicts about water in the Colorado

We are reallocating a finite resource and I think that drives the tension. The number one issue from my point of view would be that there's not enough water to go around to meet all of the needs. We hold senior rights on our creek and if we aren't getting the amount of water that we're entitled to, we will call out the upper users and they will have to watch it go by. It's a matter of financial welfare for our family, so it's a simple equation: if we can't divert enough water to produce enough hay, we can't feed our cattle, we don't make as much money, we don't pay the bills. So what you see happening in a lot of Colorado is this desire to use water for other purposes that really don't involve raising food.

Mays on her experience living in Flint during the water crisis

We started breaking out in rashes, my hair started falling out in handfuls, my sons started losing their hair. We started having weird, odd side effects, breathing issues. Our county health department didn't tell us, our state didn't tell us, nobody warned the doctors. So, all these people are getting sick, nobody can understand why we're so weak. Why do we have all these muscle pains? Why can't I feel my bones? What's going on? They downplayed everything until January of 2009. I'm standing there in my living room holding a letter from the city that says "by the way, for the past nine months, your water has been contaminated with a cancer-causing byproduct." As we fought and fought, we forced them to admit that there's a problem. We forced them to switch our water sources back. This has been citizen driven. That's the only reason anybody knows anything about Flint is because the residents are like "that's enough." Water is a human right.

Fragua on American Indians ignored during crisis

We were Flint long before Flint. No disrespect to the hundred thousand people in Flint. There's nobody more impoverished than the Indian community. There's nobody more deserving than the Indian community. There's nobody that has more senior water rights than the Indian community. Our plight is not in the news. We don't make the front page of Newsweek and the New York Times. Flint lives matter. Indian lives matter, but we've been at it for a few hundred years. This isn't like the last decade drinking contaminated water. So, we've been at this for a very long time. We've had experience of being the ignored, the polluted, the poisoned and yet nobody's listening. How do we get our story out there?

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The tensions over water for growing food to sustain wildlife, for mining minerals, for drinking, bathing, having fun and as a source of spiritual sustenance - all of that was part of the conversation we called "The Future Of Water" held earlier this week in Fort Collins, Colo. We went there to work with our member station KUNC for this latest in our live event series we call Going There.

We're going to hear just a portion of that conversation with panelist Kathleen Curry. She's a former member of the Colorado state legislature and a member of a longtime ranching family. Patty Limerick, the Colorado state historian, was also with us. She's share of the board of the Center for the American West at the University of Colorado.

Also with us, Roger Fragua, a member of the Pueblo Jemez tribe and president of a company to support Native Americans in the development of water and energy resources and Paolo Bacigalupi, the award-winning author of a futuristic novel called "The Water Knife," which imagines a future defined by extreme water scarcity.

And we started by talking about the idea of water as something to own, not just something to use, beginning with Kathleen Curry.


KATHLEEN CURRY: There are folks that have come into Colorado and people who've lived here a long time, they would like to see water used different ways than the way it's been used traditionally. The senior water rights are primarily for mining and agriculture, and that drives a certain amount of tension in Colorado.

We hold senior rights on our creek. And if we aren't getting the amount of water that we're entitled to, we will call out the upper users and they will have to watch it go by. And it's a matter of financial welfare for our family. So it's a simple equation - if we can't divert enough water to produce enough hay, we can't feed our cattle. We don't make as much money. We can't pay the bills. It's about that.

What you see happening in a lot of Colorado I think is this desire to use water for other purposes that really don't involve raising food.

MARTIN: Patty, do you want to add to that?

PATTY LIMERICK: I do. So the uses have layered on, and I'm going to say something that will cause me to drive home under the Witness Protection Program...


LIMERICK: ...That in hindsight maybe installing conventional crop production in the American West wasn't the cleverest move. So - and I shall be - you won't recognize me when I leave here. I'll have a disguise on. And I will say I - as an American historian, as a citizen - I think agriculture and ranching are extremely vital and important elements of our culture.

A lot of what we consider the beauty, the open space, the Purple Mountains majesty, the open plains, that's agriculture that keeps those plains open. And if we - for some reason, if we become a society that really prefers condos to open plains, we can go there. So when I go through the suburbs, I'm going to have to be in Witness Protection as well I guess on that.

So as soon as you get a simple position, it means you haven't thought enough. So if you - which doesn't stop a lot of people...


LIMERICK: ...From doing that. So that's an interesting...

MARTIN: OK, but we have to dig into this because really this is where - where the rubber hits the road. I can't think...

CURRY: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Of a water metaphor. Sorry if I'm back east. Kathleen, look, most of the water in Colorado comes from the western slope, where you live. But most of the people are in the big cities on the east. Roger, I know you'll co-sign this - with few exceptions, some people in this country are told where to live, but the majority of people - the custom in the United States has been you can live wherever you want to live, right?

So what has to happen if there's too many people for too little water, what has to happen?

CURRY: I'm going to try to answer that question politely. I - I don't have a lot of sympathy for the newcomers. I'm sorry, I apologize but this is how the system works in Colorado, and the senior rights have priority. And if that were to be changed, it would have to be changed really with a constitutional amendment, not even just a statutory adjustment.

So having said that, I understand that we need to work together. But here's one idea - and that would be to show good faith on both sides and make sure that if there's going to be a transfer of water from rural to urban, that at least the urban entities are using the water they have wisely. And...


CURRY: And maybe show a true commitment to growth management. We...

MARTIN: And growth management means what? Everybody wants to live here can't, is that what that means?

CURRY: No, no, I'm sorry...

MARTIN: What does it mean?

CURRY: ...I should explain that. Growth management would mean perhaps smaller yards, less outdoor watering, more dense development versus sprawl that would use more water. That's what - out here - what kind of the catchphrase would be that - with growth management. Then you can have conversations about reallocating existing supplies, and those conversations would be much more civil because you could build more trust.

MARTIN: Roger, I want to bring you back in. What do you think we need to be thinking about that we're perhaps not thinking about?

ROGER FRAGUA: So I sit and I listened to the debate. When people talk about being last in the door and then shutting the door behind them, so we don't want any more newbies coming in behind us because we're - the pioneers are here. So if this Christian nation, right, under God really believes the book that it says - that God created this universe, he created plants, he created animals and then on the last day he created man, right? Then we're last; we're not first.

The winged the finned, the four-legged, who's lobbying for them? This isn't about the economy. I mean, no disrespect for to our ranchers. I mean, we're ranchers, too. And water has multiple uses. And it is economic, but it can't be about the economy. It can't be about the mighty dollar because in the end, what's that dollar going to buy you?

Water is life. And if you don't have water, you don't have life. And if you have money, so what?

MARTIN: Paolo, you're our kind of big thinker here. We're all big thinkers; I'm just giving you a title.

PAOLO BACIGALUPI: All right, I'll take it. I love it. My brain just expanded...


BACIGALUPI: ...Or at least my ego.

MARTIN: Well, I mean, Roger just told us that water is sacred in some of our cultures. But in others, why isn't it, in your view?

BACIGALUPI: Well, I think in the United States, I think that we like to address our natural world as commodities, not as sacred objects. The entire point of invading the North America was to make a lot of money and to prosper. And so if you have to go worship the forest, then you can't cut them down and ship the timber places.

MARTIN: So resources are something to subdue, not something with which we coexist.

BACIGALUPI: Someone to extract.

MARTIN: Extract.

BACIGALUPI: Yeah, yeah. One of the things that I'm fascinated about specifically is the idea of empathy. The problem is - seems to be that we do have this sense of empathy, mostly for our present self and our personal self. One of the things I'm really interested in is whether or not there's a way for us to engage with the idea of our future self or our children's future self.

If we can live inside of the shoes of that person 20 or 30 years out and what kind of world we hand off to them as if it's as important as we are in this moment, I think that we could start out actually having some actual successful conversations that would maybe allow us to innovate in positive directions.

MARTIN: I thank you all so much. We've only just scratched the surface. We'll have to come back. We'll just have to come back.


MARTIN: That was Paolo Bacigalupi and before him Roger Fragua, Patty Limerick and Kathleen Curry, all part of our panel conversation this week called Going There, "The Future Of Water." We spoke in Fort Collins, Colo. You can hear the rest of the conversation, which also included Flint, Mich., clean water activist Melissa Mays by going to npr.org.

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