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ProPublica Investigates Colorado River Water Woes

PHOTO: Lake Mead is at its lowest level in history again this summer. A ProPublica investigation probes some of the political and policy reasons that may be exacerbating the drought. Photo credit: Alicia Burtner, U.S. Geological Survey

PHOTO: Lake Mead is at its lowest level in history again this summer. A ProPublica investigation probes some of the political and policy reasons that may be exacerbating the drought. Photo credit: Alicia Burtner, U.S. Geological Survey
June 24, 2015

PHOENIX - The investigative journalism group ProPublica has been taking an in-depth look at the water crisis in the West, in a series that is focused on the Colorado River.

As part of the series Killing the Colorado, reporter Abrahm Lustgarten spent months interviewing people on all sides of the water-use debate, from farmers in Arizona to city leaders in Las Vegas.

What he said he's learned is that, drought or no drought, water use is a policy and management issue. He said he hopes readers of his reports take away the same message.

"First and foremost is a greater awareness of how the decisions that we make politically and the places that we put our money affect the water crisis," he said. "I'd like to see the smart people in the room make changes based on that realization."

Lustgarten doesn't take a stand on which changes need to be made. In Arizona, the reports have examined farmers getting federal subsidies to grow water-intensive crops such as cotton - and the pollution problems of the Navajo Generating Station near Page, which was designed to power the Central Arizona Project canal system.

Lustgarten likens the Colorado River today to a giant plumbing system of pipes and canals, dams and reservoirs. Based on the dozens of interviews for the series, he said, he is convinced that even with less water, there would be more to go around if conservation had been a bigger priority.

"There seem to be ample opportunities to use it more efficiently, distribute it differently, stop ways in which it's being wasted and get rid of ways in which it's actually leaking out of the system itself," he said. "All of those things, I think, are what you'd call conservation."

The ProPublica series paints a grim picture at times, from lack of federal oversight to feuds about water rights, to different states' and individuals' "use it or lose it" mentality about water. But according to its author, there's also hope for greater cooperation to help Westerners get through the drought.

"What I hear from people I interview is, there's a lot of room in the law to allow sharing, transfers of rights, lesser usage of rights - while not threatening those rights," he said.

The "Killing the Colorado" series began in late May. Lustgarten said the last installment will focus on what he calls "surprising" information about how and why groundwater is being used by some to make up for lack of river water.

The series is online at propublica.org.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - AZ