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Is federal money doing anything to stop the drying Colorado River?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

American taxpayers are throwing money at the Colorado River.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The funds aim to help people who rely on that river to recover nearly every drop of water they can. Forty million people depend on a river that's affected by a changing climate. Drinking water, food production and hydroelectric power are all at risk.

FADEL: Alex Hager at member station KUNC in Colorado tracks it all closely, and he joins me now. Good morning, Alex.

ALEX HAGER, BYLINE: Hello, Leila.

FADEL: So drought has shrunk the Colorado River to critical levels, and the federal government has responded with a lot of money. Has it helped?

HAGER: So far, it has helped stave off catastrophe, but it definitely has not solved the Colorado River crisis. The government plans to use more than $1 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act to pay people to take less water out of the river. That is happening everywhere from farms in Wyoming to big cities in Arizona. At the end of the day, climate change means less water is showing up almost every year, and the whole region needs to permanently cut back on demand. This federal spending is just buying some time for policymakers to come up with a longer-term strategy. It also does not hurt that last winter was pretty snowy, which helped lift some pressure.

FADEL: And you went to Arizona recently to report on how some of that money is being spent. What did you see?

HAGER: Yeah, nearly $160 million of that money is earmarked for Arizona cities to help them conserve water. In Phoenix, I found they're not exactly focused on the types of things that come to mind when you hear that word, conservation. In the past, it has meant installing low flow shower heads and paying people to rip out their thirsty lawns. But Cynthia Campbell, who's with the water department in Phoenix, says this.

CYNTHIA CAMPBELL: Some point in time, there does have to be a recognition of the scope of the problem as such. You just can't conserve your way out of it.

HAGER: So now they're focusing on longer-term projects that will help them kind of find new sources of water. They're using federal money to chip in on big, expensive construction. Twenty-two cities in central Arizona are pooling their money to make an existing dam taller and store more water during wet winters. And they're looking at building expensive, high-tech facilities that would take sewage, clean it up till it's safe to drink and pump it right back into city pipes.

FADEL: Now, there's a lot at stake here. I mean, I cities in the Southwest are some of the fastest growing in recent years. And if they run out of water, that growth, economic growth, that would end.

HAGER: Yeah, that's right. Phoenix and its suburbs are still pulling in a lot of new residents and new businesses. Some of them are adding thousands of people every year. And there are giant, multi-billion-dollar semiconductor plants opening up. But at the same time, the state is pumping out groundwater faster than it can be replenished. Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs made a big announcement last year that hit the brakes on new building in some suburbs. The national media framed it as the beginning of the end for development around Phoenix. But Hobbs herself said we are not out of water, and we will not be running out of water. So city and state leaders know they are under a ton of pressure to get this right. You're seeing them try to walk this really fine line of confronting water shortages head on while still trying to grow the economy.

FADEL: Alex Hager with member station KUNC in Colorado. Thank you, Alex.

HAGER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alex Hager
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.