NPR Story
1:37 pm
Tue June 26, 2012

As Colorado River Dries Up, The West Feels The Pain

Originally published on Wed June 27, 2012 9:51 am

The Colorado River touches the lives of Americans coast to coast. The river begins in the Rocky Mountains and flows into Mexico's Sea of Cortez. Along the way, it feeds over a dozen tributaries across the American Southwest.

Many in the West rely on the Colorado for drinking water, and farmers depend on it to irrigate millions of acres of farmland. And if you've ever felt the cool relief of air conditioning in Las Vegas, there's a good chance the electricity was provided by the "mighty Colorado."

But the river is drying up. As it does, those who rely on it for farming, cattle ranching, fishing and tourism fear economic disaster.

Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project, and photographer and writer Peter McBride join host Neal Conan in a special broadcast from Aspen, Colo., to explain the importance of the Colorado River, why it's in peril and what is being done to help protect it.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan at the Aspen Institute. If you enjoy lettuce or carrots in the wintertime, you eat water from the Colorado River or its vast watershed. If you've been to L.A., Denver or Phoenix, you've drunk from it. And if you've ever escaped the desert heat of Las Vegas for the relief of an air-conditioned hotel, the Colorado most likely provided the electricity.

The river rises here in the Rocky Mountains, runs through a magnificent gorge here in Colorado. Fed by the waters of a dozen tributaries, it carves the even more fantastic gorge of the Grand Canyon. It stutters through half-a-dozen great dams on its way to the Sea of Cortez.

The Colorado is also a river in trouble. It's drying up. Those who rely on its water for farms, ranches and tourism fear disaster. Already, bitter political disputes become even worse, and the same conditions that parch the Colorado also leave much of the West and Southwest vulnerable to the fires already burning in several states.

Today, what the Colorado River means to our country, why it's in crisis, and what we might be able to do about that. If the river runs through your life, tell us what's changed. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. We'll take questions from the audience here at the Paepcke Auditorium as well, and everybody, thanks very much for coming in today.

(APPLAUSE)

CONAN: Later in the program, novelist Colum McCann on collecting and swapping stories. But first, we focus on the Colorado River with two guests who have rivers flowing in their veins, Peter McBride, a writer and photographer, his most recent book "The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict"; Sandra Postel is a freshwater fellow at National Geographic and heads their Freshwater Initiative. They're both on stage with us here at the Paepcke Auditorium, and thanks very much for coming in.

SANDRA POSTEL: A pleasure, Neal.

PETER MCBRIDE: Thank you, it's an honor.

CONAN: And as I mentioned earlier, just a few hundred yards from here, the Roaring Fork River, filled with the melt from the snow in the mountains, is roaring down the Rocky Mountains, and we're looking at a picture here in the Paepcke Auditorium that's posted on a screen. You can see that same picture if you go to our website at npr.org. There's a slideshow, and it's one of the pictures. And Peter McBride, it's one of your pictures, and we're looking at cracked, dried mud. That's the Colorado River too. What happens between here and there?

MCBRIDE: It's remarkable. The river basically just disappears at the U.S.-Mexican border, about 100 miles shy of the sea. And even now, so we have the Roaring Fork River next to us, just a few hundred yards, it's actually somewhat trickling right now. We should be at the tail end of the peak runoff, and it's running at about 10 percent of average.

So we're basically a conjunction of drought and some human errors in how much water we thought was in the river, and we have a dilemma.

CONAN: And you live along the Colorado River, some of its tributaries.

MCBRIDE: I live not far from here, about 30 miles away, and all the tributaries in this area are faced with complete drought and shortages. And we're in a serious situation, not just at the end of the river but everywhere in the basin.

CONAN: And your family's got a ranch downstream.

MCBRIDE: Yeah, we actually divert water before it even reaches the Colorado River, and we're in an interesting predicament, and as many ranchers and farmers are; we're not going to have enough water this year to keep our fields irrigated.

CONAN: And you've taken a trip for your book from the headwaters of the Colorado all the way down to - well, where it doesn't reach the Sea of Cortez.

MCBRIDE: Yes, so I joined up with a friend from the valley, and he paddled the entire length of the river, and I did everything from walk, boat, fly, to try to see what's happening with this river, and it's remarkable. There are a lot of straws in the drink, as I like to put it, and the river is decreasing in its flow significantly, and we have a conundrum, and we're on the precipice of a serious water issue that's not going away anytime soon.

CONAN: One of those conundra, Sandra Postel, that picture we're looking at, that used to be one of the most productive water - wetlands in the world.

POSTEL: Absolutely. The Colorado Delta, like just about every delta in the world, where the river meets the sea, this is some of our most, you know, productive - biologically, ecologically - landscapes in the world. Some of you may know Aldo Leopold(ph), the great conservationist, canoed through the Colorado Delta in 1922, and he describes this milk-and-honey wilderness, this land of 100 green lagoons, a beautifully rich, verdant waterscape that was just unparalleled.

And two million acres of this with vast fleets of water fowl and all kinds of animals and biodiversity and fish, and just an amazing place. And now you go there, and you see this photo that we're looking at now, a lot of salty flats and cracked earth, and 40,000 acres of it, though, remains as a rich wetland. We call it an accidental wetland because of some flow that just happens to come in from an irrigation area in Arizona that keeps it verdant and shows us that it can, in fact, come back if we pay attention to it and try to make that happen.

CONAN: And why is this important to those of us who don't live down there in that corner of the country?

POSTEL: Well, you know, the river is all connected. It's one big system, and if you look at how we depend on it, you know, we have 30 million people around the country that - in the basin - that depend on it for their drinking water, a million acres of irrigated land. As you said in the intro, we drink the Colorado every time we eat lettuce in the wintertime.

We get all kinds of crops. We wear cotton T-shirts that are produced from cotton grown in the watershed. Businesses that depend on fishing and kayaking and all kinds of tourism, recreation, $26 billion of revenue every year from a healthy river system.

And so it's important we get that back. And the delta itself is really an iconic ecosystem, unparalleled, and something that we wouldn't want to lose, something we can, in fact, bring back if we choose to.

CONAN: But it is also one of the great romances of America, and Peter McBride, you grew up along here, you've lived this river.

MCBRIDE: Yeah, and what I think is remarkable about it is it's this river that's iconic to so many. It symbolizes the West, adventure, the Grand Canyon, people love worldwide, and yet very few people realize that it is a river run dry. And the delta that Sandra just described, having walked it, it is nothing but parched, cracked earth.

And this photo that we're looking at, this cracked, chapped delta region, to my surprise when I was there, it's still very wild. There are a lot of bird species. So I think we can bring it back, it just needs water and I think a lot of will.

CONAN: Whether you raise cattle in the upper Green River Valley or farm cotton in Arizona, whether you've traveled through the Grand Canyon on a raft trip or read about the Colorado River, how important is this river in your life? If it runs through it, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Tell us what's changing and what's happening as you see it.

Sandra Postel, we talk about the watershed, this is an enormous area. It's not just Colorado down here to the Gulf of Cortez or the Sea of Cortez or the Gulf of California, depending on what you want to call it, but it is a huge area of the inland West.

POSTEL: Absolutely. It covers seven states, so you've got portions of Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico - we call that the Upper Basin - and then portions of Arizona and Nevada and California, the Lower Basin, and then of course Mexico, where the delta is. So it's a vast area, really a lifeline for the whole West but in particular these states.

But if you look at a map of where the water's going, it's not just the basin itself that's using the water. We now ship that water out via canal, via pipeline, to the front range in Colorado, on over to Los Angeles. So in a sense the river bleeds out of the watershed to many other parts of the country.

So as I say, 30 million people depend on it for drinking water, and they're not all right here in the Colorado Basin.

CONAN: And Peter, some of the most interesting photographs in your book are the vast manmade structures along the Colorado, the Hoover Dam and the others that have been built since that, well, created the greatest artificial lake ever created by man, Lake Mead.

MCBRIDE: Sure, and both Lake Mead and Lake Powell are dropping significantly. There are projections that they'll never fill again and that Lake Mead, I've heard projections that it may run dry sometime after 2020. And it - some look at this river as an engineering marvel, and it is in some ways. There are diversion canals that run 336 miles up through the Sonoran Desert to Phoenix and Tucson.

They are remarkable, but in the process of controlling and damming and plumbing this river, we have basically, with some mistakes on how much water, how much flow we thought initially ran in this river, we've run it in just to death at the end.

CONAN: And death, Sandra Postel, that's hard to imagine. It would devastate this entire region.

POSTEL: Yeah, it's - you know, we - when we came to divvy up the river, we thought there was more water in it than there really was. It turned out that in 1922, when the seven states got together outside of Santa Fe to figure out how to share this lifeline of the West, they thought there was a lot more water in it because it had been a particularly rainy few decades before that.

And so they thought there was X amount. There was really X minus Y, and now we've got basically everybody thinking there's more water to share than there really is. And so we've really got to get creative about how we deal with this predicament. You know, we're demanding more water than can be supplied reliably, and it's a very serious issue in this basin.

CONAN: And Peter, let me ask you: How much of this problem is due to the drought, the lack of rain and snowpack that's left the Roaring Fork at 10 percent of its usual flow, and how much is due to all those straws in the drink, as you describe it?

MCBRIDE: I would say it's a combination of both. We are basically in the second decade of drought. This year is remarkable. In my lifetime I've never seen anything like this. But as a result of huge population growth throughout the Southwest, we've basically - the demand for water has outreached the supply, and the supply, of course, is dropping.

And I think it's very symbolic of what happens when we ask too much of a resource, of a limited resource that simply just disappears.

CONAN: It disappears. Again, that is inconceivable, yet you've seen these changes. Can you describe just what you've seen on your ranch?

MCBRIDE: Well, just on our ranch, it's remarkable. We're looking at - we usually divert water into hand-dug ditches and irrigate portions for hay, grass-fed hay, a lot of places are alfalfa, which is water consumptive. And agriculture uses actually 80 percent of the river. So we need to get more efficient with agriculture.

But right now we're getting to a situation where there isn't even enough water to irrigate our crops, where a lot of people are going to have to turn their ditches off, not because they're made to by law, just there isn't enough water period. It's going to be a question of do I divert the ditch and keep the ditch flowing, or do I keep the river flowing?

CONAN: And you've got animals to feed. They need water.

MCBRIDE: Sure, so there's a lot of people in agriculture that are going to start dumping their herds off, and there are going to be a lot of people that are trying to cut hay or harvest their crop earlier. So we're having - it's going to be an issue not just here in Colorado but basin-wide.

CONAN: That's Peter McBride, photographer and writer, his latest book "The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict." Also with us, Sandra Postel, freshwater fellow at National Geographic, who heads the Geographic's Freshwater Initiative, author of "Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity."

We'd like to hear from those of you through whom - if the Colorado River flows through your life, call and tell us what you're seeing, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan at the Aspen Institute. And it's another hot day across much of Colorado, record-setting temperatures that make it even more difficult for firefighters trying to contain a number of fires burning in this state. The largest, the High Park Fire, near Fort Collins, has burned nearly 90,000 acres since it ignited just over two weeks ago.

It's destroyed more than 250 homes. Officials report it's just over half-contained. Air tankers and fire crews also continue to battle another fire near Colorado Springs, the Waldo Canyon Fire. So far, it's forced the evacuation of thousands of people. It's only about 5 percent contained. At least four other wildfires now burning in Colorado, fueled in part, large part, by forests and grasses decimated by months of drought and not at all unrelated to our topic today, the Colorado River.

We're talking about what that body of water means to our country, why it's in crisis and what we might be able to do about that. If the river flows through your life, call and tell us what's changed, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We're going to also take questions from the audience here at the Paepcke Auditorium in Aspen.

Our guests are Sandra Postel, she heads the National Geographic's Freshwater Initiative and wrote the book "Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity." Also with us here onstage, photographer and writer Peter McBride; grew up near the Colorado. His latest book is "The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict." And let's see if we can start with Rich and Rich on the line with us from Camp Verde in Arizona.

RICH: Yes, Neal, this is a very interesting topic. Water conservation I think has been kind of a topic that hasn't been discussed too much. I've lived here in the Southwest for almost 20 years, and when my wife and I built the house, we have set up a collection system, and we have been collecting water off of our roof for over 10 years.

I know it's not something that most people can do, but we have done that, and I wonder why conservation measures haven't been brought more to the public.

CONAN: And what else are you seeing about the levels of rivers and lakes where you are?

RICH: Well, as one of your guests had mentioned, Lake Mead might be going dry by 2020. Lake Mead and Lake Powell have both been at historic lows, and you could see them constantly, you know, getting lower and lower every year.

CONAN: And how is that affecting your life?

RICH: Well, because I'm collecting my own water off of the roof, it's not affecting my life too much, but people here in the Southwest, you know, they think that water is just an infinite resource, and it really isn't. It's a very finite resource.

CONAN: Rich, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it. That attitude, Sandra Postel, water, infinite resource, it's always there, you turn on the tap, it flows.

POSTEL: Yeah, that's kind of how we think about it, but it's really not the way it is. It's a renewable resource, but it's also finite, and what we're running into is hitting those limits. And, you know, Rich lives near, probably near the Verde River, which is an important tributary to the Colorado. And where he lives, near Camp Verde, there's a big stretch of it that's dry routinely, not just in a drought year but dry, you know, for long stretches during the irrigation season.

And that's true throughout the basin, you know, that we're diverting, depleting. Even in non-drought years, there are big stretches that aren't getting water, which impacts the fisheries, impacts the ecosystem, and you see it throughout, from headwaters all the way down to the delta, these stretches of miles at a time where you've got dry tributaries.

And so absolutely right, we can be doing so much more with conservation and efficiency, you know, both in our homes and in our cities but of course in agriculture, too, which uses the lion's share of the water in the West and also in the Colorado Basin.

So in a way that's the silver lining. If we decide to do something, we can get smarter about how we manage and use water in the West, from our homes and communities and of course on our farms. And that's sort of where we need to really sort of focus our solutions, I think.

CONAN: Peter McBride, those dry stretches must have made your trip pretty interesting.

MCBRIDE: It made it a bit challenging, to say the least.

CONAN: You didn't have a float all the way down.

MCBRIDE: We had hoped to, and just below the last dam on the river into Mexico, called the Morelos Dam, we were actually paddling and thought we might make a stretch. And we had come to this rather eerie, creepy, what I call a Frappuccino pit. It looked like we paddled right into the top of a Frappuccino coffee, and it was covered with some layer of agriculture affluent, plastic bottles and who knows what.

And it was shocking to me because even growing up on the West, using this river, fish swam in it, loved it. I was alarmed to learn that this mighty river that carved the Grand Canyon and that we all love, it just vanished in front of my eyes.

CONAN: Let's get a question from the microphone here Paepcke Auditorium.

SARA: On a rafting and hiking trip in the Grand Canyon, I noticed so much vegetation along the banks of the Colorado River. Because the river is constrained now, it's no longer allowed to scour the canyon, and it's by the Glen Canyon Dam. Of course, it's dammed, and you don't get those big rushes every year, and I even had to scrounge allergy medicine from friends because the ecology has changed so much in the canyon.

CONAN: Sandra Postel, there's a lot of controversy over whether there's going to be that rush and much tourism this summer.

POSTEL: Absolutely, and you make a very good point with this observation because, you know, the river isn't flooding. You don't get that pulse of water through the river anymore. And so - and the canyon had depended on that, the whole ecosystem of the canyon depended on that. So what we're trying now are these what we call artificial floods.

We're trying to introduce occasionally, not every year, but periodically, you know, giving the river something like the flood that it used to get in the spring to try to do exactly what you were referring to; re-create a healthier ecosystem throughout the canyon.

And we've been trying it, you know, with some success, some mixed results. But it's the kind of thing I think we need to do to try to restore health to the ecosystem.

CONAN: Sara(ph), thanks very much for the question, appreciate it. This an email from John(ph) in Melbourne, Australia: I just spent two months traveling around Western Colorado, seeing the effects of this year's especially intense drought with rivers all down to August levels as early as April. A river is a crucial element in sustaining everything in the West, and most people just have no clue how crucial it really is.

I spent time on the Yampa River, the only uncontrolled tributary left in the Colorado system, and one sees immediately that a living, uncontrolled river is so completely different from a controlled one. John Wesley Powell suggested the Western water problem could have been solved much easier if the geopolitical boundaries of cities and states were drawn along watersheds rather than arbitrarily along other ways.

Since it's not the case, there are completely intractable legal issues around use, ownership and sustainability of the whole system. The Yampa runs through Steamboat Springs and then on west, and Sandra Postel, the political battles he's talking about, well, that's the political story of the American West, isn't it?

POSTEL: It absolutely is, and he brings up a really good, important river right now because just last week, the officials in Steamboat Springs decided there's too little flow in the Yampa to allow commercial tubing. And so this is a big recreational income-earner for the town. A lot of tourists come and they want to tube down the Yampa, but there's not enough water in it right now to do that safely.

So fishing, rafting, tubing, it's all being impacted by this drought. But the issue of how we're going to grapple with this. You know, there is, as Peter said, too many straws in this river now, and so planning ahead for climate change and for the possibility of much more severe, prolonged drought. We know that throughout the Southwest, we've enjoyed a fairly good period of water.

And historically, much, much lower. You go back hundreds of years, and you find megadroughts - 12th and 13th century civilizations of the Anasazi and the Chaco Canyon civilization, the Hohokam down in Arizona. They sort of bit the dust after a good run of time because of droughts followed by floods and this kind of thing.

So we need to start preparing, I think, for a future that isn't - is not going to be familiar to us.

CONAN: Well, Peter, preparing, politics is difficult game.

MCBRIDE: Remarkably difficult. The saying is that whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting, holds true today and everywhere. And another example is down in the delta there was an indigenous people called the Kokopa, and they had a population of about 20,000, and because water basically disappeared from their life, and they can't fish, there's about 1,500.

And so I think that's going to play out in a lot of areas of the river. And another thing I don't think people are entirely aware of is generally in the West, I find people say - they usually point their finger at somebody else. It's their fault. And basically...

CONAN: Usually somebody upstream.

MCBRIDE: Yeah, or downstream. But we're all users, and we all need to basically change this water paradigm and our consumptive habits because we just don't have enough water to support the population it's supplying right now.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Greg(ph), and Greg's with us from Denver.

GREG: Yeah, thank you for taking my call. I'm a travel director all around the Southwestern United States, and just last week, I was in Moab, Utah, and our jet boat excursion company there is at risk of not being able to run the rest of the summer because they don't have enough water. It's just drying up. And these are levels that they normally see in October. It's quite scary.

CONAN: And how many people would be involved in terms of their livelihoods if that jet boat was not able to run?

GREG: Well, I would say in the town of Moab, Utah, which is approximately 5,000 people, it's probably 10 percent of the population depends on river business for their income. But it's not just Moab; it's all the towns along the Colorado; Grand Junction, all the way up to Glenwood Springs, up where you are near the Roaring Fork. All these places depend on the water for recreation purposes. And there's jobs all along the river that depend on the water, and it's just not there.

CONAN: OK. Your cell is betraying you, but thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it. And tourism, Sandra Postel, that's not something we've really focused on.

POSTEL: Yeah. But that $26 billion of revenue that's attributed to the Colorado River, a lot of that is tourism. It's a very, very important part of the economy and so - in some way, that's a nice thing. If we restore health to the ecosystem, we're also revitalizing our economies and keeping revenues coming for recreation and fishing and rafting and tubing and all the reasons that people come to the West to enjoy a vacation. So I think we can - in restoring flows, we're actually benefiting not only the ecosystems but also all the economic activity that depends on it.

CONAN: Here's an email from Riza(ph) in Boulder: One thing I've noticed is that it seems the further people are from the source of their water, the less aware they are of a need to conservative it. I live on the Colorado's western slope, and most people around - live around here are very careful with water, but I've had to educate my mother who lives in Los Angeles about not letting the tap run while brushing her teeth, using low-flow shower heads and so forth. I've floated on the Colorado River and house-boated on Lake Powell, and I would dearly miss this river if it were gone.

And those kinds of - we've had somebody else calling earlier today about getting - collecting rainwater off your roof. Some people may say not running your tap while brushing - this is pretty small potatoes when we're talking about large agricultural uses. Let's put the priorities where they might (unintelligible) Sandra Postel?

POSTEL: Well, I think, you know, I think doing everything we can, to me, turning the tap off when you're brushing your teeth, while it's not saving a lot of water, it says to me that there's concern about water. And so it's sort of your consciousness is there that it's important to conserve it. Absolutely, that's not going to solve our problems. We need to focus on agriculture and how we water the landscapes, if we water at all the landscapes that are around our yards at home.

So I think there are larger things we can do, but, to me, it's an important thing to recognize that, you know, we need to do our part in every way we can to conserve it and use it more wisely.

CONAN: And just this email we have from Sue in Centennial, Colorado: In response to the caller who collects rain from his roof in Colorado, that's against the law. All water that doesn't soak into the ground is owed to downstream users. Senior water rights always have precedents even when the junior water users have the greater need. You need a whole show on Western water rights law if people can stay awake that long. Go ahead, Peter McBride.

MCBRIDE: That rule was actually recently overturned in the state of Colorado. And if you apply for a well now, you can actually collect water, but it is a remarkable rule. And just to go back to Sandra's point on this, 26 billion of the Colorado River brings in, that's for a flowing river, and it also brings in a quarter million jobs. So people often think of this river as just a way to plumb the West, but it is really economically a viable system as a flowing river, and we need to remember that.

CONAN: Peter McBride, photographer and writer, his latest "The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict"; also with us, Sandra Postel, freshwater fellow at National Geographic, her book is "Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity," from the Aspen Institute. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's see if we can go next to - this is Woody(ph). Woody with us from Delray Beach in Florida.

WOODY: Yes. Florida, plenty of water here in Florida.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Yeah. Well, that's thanks to Debbie, I think, yes.

WOODY: Anyway, Neal, I was raised out West in the '50s. I saw all the water coming down. All these Easterners came, and they decided to make New England out of the West and put gardens and grass and stuff, but they stopped that now (unintelligible). But I split time between Florida and Las Vegas, Nevada. (Unintelligible) get down to Boulder City, the lake is down. It's (unintelligible) dry. There's no water. But the city of Las Vegas (unintelligible) people the money back for their grass. They're very conscious of conservation because they need water more than anybody else. But there's millions and millions of people there now.

When I was out there in the '50s and '60s, there was a quarter of the population. I don't really know what to do because the water goes to California, down in Nevada. There's the electrical grids from Hoover Dam. The water better run (unintelligible) big, big trouble. And they can't get water from Florida, I can tell you that.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: No, they really can't. This is just a particularly wet couple of weeks there in Florida. Thanks very much for the call, Woody. Appreciate it. So what do we do about this? The conservation, again, people's lawns in Las Vegas, this is a drop in the bucket. You'll forgive the metaphor.

POSTEL: Well, I think in Vegas, it's actually really important. I mean, Las Vegas doesn't do much agriculture so their water allocation - their water, you know, allotment from the Colorado is largely for, you know, Las Vegas and the surrounding area there. So for them to say, you know, we're going to give you back a dollar fifty per square foot for every, you know, bit of turf you pull out is important for them to balance their water budget. And they've reduced their per capita water use, their water use per household quite a bit through measures like that. So they're doing important conservation work, and I think we need to see more cities throughout the basin doing those kinds of progressive measures.

CONAN: But, Peter McBride, what about those 80 percent, the agricultural users?

MCBRIDE: Sure. That's the big one. Actually, we do want ag. We like ag. We like to have food that's nearby, but we need to find much greater efficiencies in ag. And they are out there. A lot of it depends on what crops we're going to grow. Should we grow cotton down in the Imperial Valley? Lettuce maybe is a good crop, but they're using satellite imagery to actually monitor how much water is getting in certain regions in fields. There's gravity-fed sprinklers now, and there's some new programs coming out where farmers and ranchers can actually donate their water right back to the stream for the stream in drought years like this year without the risk of losing their water right.

CONAN: Let's see if we get one more question here from Paepcke Auditorium and the microphone.

CINDY POLITE: Hi. My name is Cindy Polite(ph), and we have a property on the Snowmass Creek as well. And one of the issues that we're facing is that with the drought increasing, the ski areas here use a lot of the water or a portion of the water from the creeks to produce snowmaking. What politically - what sort of rights do we have politically to help, you know, keep the water in the creeks for the wildlife and people downstream?

CONAN: Snowmass, one of the resorts - ski resorts just up...

POLITE: Yes.

CONAN: ...above us here in Aspen.

MCBRIDE: So we're surrounded by four mountains in this area, and they do do a lot of snowmaking. And they pull a lot of water from the Snowmass Creek, and they do it legally. And most of the time, we have to show up and voice our opinions that flowing creels are important, and we need to all put our voice forward on that, I think, because people have been ignoring it. We've had this opinion that water is abundant, and our streams are always going to flow. And we're finally getting to a point where we're realizing they're not.

And a ski industry is one example of many - I mean, there's industry - fracking is going to be a big issue, where the water for fracking is going to come from. So we all need to put our voice on this.

CONAN: Thanks to you both. Thanks very much. I'm afraid we could talk about this for a long time, but we're out of time. Sandra Postel, a freshwater fellow at National Geographic; Peter McBride, a writer and photographer. We have a slideshow with several of his images at our website at npr.org. They both joined us here at the Paepcke Auditorium at the Aspen Institute. Up next, novelist Colum McCann. Writers, do you write about what you know, or do you write about what you want to know? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.