Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Our signal in Moab at 88.7 FM KUST is currently off the air. We are working to get it back on as soon as possible.

With Drought The New Normal In The West, States Scramble To Prepare


Now we're going to take the conversation closer to home. Water is becoming a major topic of concern in the American West. Just take the Colorado River. Forty million people in seven states depend upon it for drinking, farming and recreation, and the strain on the river is showing. For the last decade, the Colorado River has been completely dry by the time it completes its 1,400 mile journey to the Sea of Cortez.

That's just one reason we're heading to Colorado on Tuesday for our live event series. And one of the people we'll meet up with there is Patty Limerick. She's the faculty director for the Center for the American West in Boulder, and she's also the Colorado state historian. Patty, thanks so much for joining us.

PATTY LIMERICK: Oh, what a pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: Now you have a saying that I want to introduce everybody to. You call the last 100 years in the American West, quote, "the era of improbable comfort made possible by a truly astonishing but taken for granted infrastructure," unquote. It's catchy. But unpack that for me.

LIMERICK: Oh, thank you. In my opinion, that's just a wonderful way of saying after initial encounters of Euro-Americans with this region, they just thought, it's too dry for conventional American settlement. It can't happen here. Then all kinds of ingenuity and hard work kicked in, and this place became a very comfortable place to live.

You turn on a faucet, you get water. You turn on a switch, you get electricity. It's just a - it's a remarkable transformation. And so if you look before this era and if you look at the future, that is implausible and improbable comfort. And it is not guaranteed for the ages. In fact, this is a time of great reckoning.

MARTIN: Do I take that to mean that you believe that era is now over? And if so, why? Is it because of climate change, or is it because of demand?

LIMERICK: Yeah, I think it's petering out more than ended. I think a whole bunch of factors - certainly climate change - and as the managers of, well, most water utilities say it's not that we're moving from one determined, defined state of precipitation to another one. The past no longer really give us our bearings. We don't know that there's not going to be a new, stable normal. It's really a state of continued uncertainty. I've been in this area for 32 years, and I would say I see change.

MARTIN: Now a World Bank report said that lack of water could give rise to a lot of interpersonal conflict. In your state, conflicts have already arisen with the eastern and western parts of the state sometimes in conflict over water rights. I mean, do you - is that something that you see?

LIMERICK: I think it's an open question. I would say there's a very strong streak of collaboration. And the state of Colorado has a state water plan for the first time in its history. It was a very long process. And they squabbled, they fought, but then they reached some kind of report that they could all stand behind. Now having that as a written document is pretty different from having a new this is how we conduct ourselves and this is how water is allocated.

MARTIN: So what I think I hear you saying is that conflict isn't the only choice. What you also see...


MARTIN: ...Are new pathways to collaboration around this because people are understanding just how crucial it is. So, Patty, before we let you go, why should people in other parts of the country care about this?

LIMERICK: Because you can have droughts in the southeast. Georgia and Alabama - those states have squabbled over water during periods of drought. And bedrock - most important - water quality can create a problem of scarcity. I don't want to take us off track, but Flint, Mich. is the place to remember - to think it's not just the West.

MARTIN: Patty Limerick is the Colorado state historian and the faculty director of the Center for the American West in Boulder. She will be joining me in Fort Collins, Colo., on Tuesday for our live event. It's called The Future of Water. It's a conversation about a lot of the things that we've been talking about and more. You can start joining the conversation right now if you care to. Our hashtag is #nprh20. That's on Tuesday in Fort Collins, Colo. Patty, thank you so much for joining us.

LIMERICK: Oh, thank you. I can't wait until Tuesday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.