NPR’s interview with Colorado River author misses an important angle: The effort to save Lake Mead

Where the Water Goes by David Owen

National Public Radio has some of the best interviewing talent in American journalism, and there’s none better than Terry Gross, whose Peabody Award-winning weekday program, “Fresh Air,” has consistently delivered provocative and fascinating interview sessions. On radio, there’s really none better.

But, let’s face it Westerners, the perspective of much of NPR’s programming is often East Coast-centric. Gross’s interview on Thursday with the author of a new book on the Colorado River is further evidence that if they don’t know about it in New York… well, it just isn’t.

Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River (Penguin Group USA) by David Owen by and large is an honest and fair assessment of the challenges facing the Colorado River today — a source of water for over 35 million people living in the American Southwest. Especially in the face of long-term, chronic drought, those challenges have been daunting. Owen chronicles most of them in Where the Water Goes, including the tender status of Lake Mead, the largest reservoir on the Colorado River system, which today is less than 40 percent full.

In his NPR interview with Gross, Owen explained the 1922 agreement among the federal government and the Colorado River states to apportion shares of the river’s water. The long-standing agreement, as it has turned out, is one of the biggest reasons why Lake Mead is in danger of descending now to “deadpool” level, the critical point at which water may no longer flow out of the lake. Said Owen:

“It’s one of these great sort of ironies of history that in the 19 – the 1920s were some of the wettest years in that part of the country since the 1400s. So the river at that time was carrying more water than ever. And so when the states divided up the river, they were dividing up – actually water that didn’t exist. On the other side, the good side is that, well, it’s almost a century later and that compact, the agreement among those states, still exists.”

Owen’s assessment is pretty much spot on… as far as it goes. But what he leaves out in his interview with Gross is some vital perspective: Fixing that structural deficit created in 1922 is the consuming issue facing Colorado River water managers today.

It’s not like they’re all slapping their foreheads, going, “Oh, that’s why we’re in this mess!”

Addressing the structural deficit is one of the highest priorities of the “Drought Contingency Plan,” or DCP, that the river states and the federal government have been negotiating for nearly three years. See: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and…(whew!) here.

We appreciate Owen and Terry Gross educating NPR’s mostly waterlogged, mostly Eastern audience about the challenges facing the much more arid West. Just because California and much of the West has gotten drenched of late doesn’t mean pursuing a DCP is any less of a priority.

There really is another important chapter to that story about where the water goes. It’s about the effort to keep a lot of it in Lake Mead.

 

 

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