What's Making Headlines Outside Of Washington?

Congress has gone home for its annual August recess, so Tell Me More takes a look at headlines in places across the country. Guest host Celeste Headlee talks with Mike Leary from the San Antonio Express-News and Dana Coffield of The Denver Post.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, Luis Leon was detained for two weeks when he tried to cross the border without papers. He's one of the young undocumented immigrants known as the Dream 9, and we'll hear from him in just a few minutes. First, though, we're having a surprisingly beautiful August here in Washington, D.C., and most politicians aren't here to enjoy it.

The president is vacationing at Martha's Vineyard and Congress is on recess until early September. In the meantime, representatives who are normally on the Hill are now at home in their districts and in the states that elected them. So we wanted to look in on a couple of those districts and find out how some key political issues are playing out in their hometowns. Mike Leary is with us. He's the editor of the San Antonio Express-News, and also, Dana Coffield is the city editor at The Denver Post. Welcome to both of you.

MIKE LEARY: Hello.

HEADLEE: So let's get right to it, Mike. It's not really surprising that immigration would be a big issue in San Antonio. I think you guys are about, what, say, two and a half hours from the border, just about that. How's the...

LEARY: ...Some places, even closer.

HEADLEE: (Laughing) ...Depending on how far south you go. How has the debate changed in your town, or has it changed since they started discussing immigration reform in D.C.?

LEARY: Well, I think there has been some pace of change. Obviously, San Antonio is not only close to the border, but it's about two thirds Latino. And this is one of the bluer parts of Texas that - Obama won Bexar County in both elections.

I think one real change since the Latino vote was so important in 2012 was you have somebody like representative Lamar Smith, who is a very powerful figure in Capitol Hill, who - our columnist Brian Chasnoff reported just a couple of weeks ago - had told a local Latino rights group that the DREAM Act was something he could consider voting for. When pressed on that, he - his staff issued a statement saying - modifying that a little bit that - basically saying that people brought here through no fault of their own - was the statement - should get some sort of a visa. And exactly what that ought to be wasn't specified. But that's...

HEADLEE: We should mention...

LEARY: ...That's changed.

HEADLEE: ...That Lamar Smith is a Republican from Texas.

LEARY: Yes.

HEADLEE: Representative - I think he represents the 21st District. Let me go to you, Dana, then. You guys are quite a bit further away from the border. Is the immigration debate in Colorado different?

DANA COFFIELD: We don't seem to be waiting around so much for Washington to take action. We have been seeing different types of progress on the ground, including, you know, our last legislative session passing provisional driver's licenses for people who are here undocumented.

One of our colleges enacted a tuition program for kids who would qualify for deferred action status before that even existed. So we have a lot of action on the sort of the social level. Our federal representatives are at the forefront of immigration reform, and even our Republicans are sort of coming around to a place where they have acknowledged that some action needs to be taken, but Senators Bennet and Udall have been at the forefront of this.

HEADLEE: Well, Mike, Texas is still a red state at this point. Although, you're at a blue kind of polka dot down there in San Antonio.

LEARY: That's right.

HEADLEE: How do people in Texas feel - and in San Antonio especially - feel about the way immigration is being handled in D.C.?

LEARY: Well, I think there's a real split. Obviously, in places like San Antonio, the Rio Grande Valley, where people are largely of Mexican origin, I think they're very much in favor of immigration reform. They would like to see more rapid reform, actually, than the 13 years in link to border security. I think in much of the rest of Texas, there is not that attitude. In fact, it's the polar opposite. But there have been traditionally some areas, for example, in terms of education and college tuition that - this was an area that Rick Perry in the, you know - in the Republican primaries in 2012, where Mitt Romney got to the right of him. And - but by and large, I think, overall in Texas, it's still a very red state and folks here are opposed to rapid change.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're checking in with regional newspaper editors Dana Coffield of The Denver Post and Mike Leary of the San Antonio Express-News. Let's move on to a topic that's not really being discussed in D.C. right now, and that would be the environment. Mike, I know your paper has been writing about the now three year-long drought in central Texas. What's the status of the weather there?

LEARY: Well, it's been a hundred degrees pretty consistently the last few weeks. We did actually have a major 14 inch rain event in May that flooded parts of San Antonio, but that was really an anomaly that the - this is a place where they measure the height of the aquifer every day, and it's down. And some places, smaller towns - not San Antonio - have changed their watering regulations.

HEADLEE: How far down is the aquifer?

LEARY: Well, it's basically - it's 633 feet and they'd like it, you know, 660, 670. This is a time a year when it goes down because of irrigation, but realistically, it's not just the aquifer. It's the Guadalupe River, which runs right through San Antonio - or adjacent to San Antonio - is basically dried up. And we ran a picture of a hydrologist a couple of days ago, standing in the dry riverbed looking for a trickle of water.

HEADLEE: Wow.

LEARY: Couldn't find it. Some of our major recreational lakes are down around 5 percent of their normal depth, and we have it better than some places. For example, in Brownsville in the Rio Grande Valley, they're looking at potentially, you know, reprocessed waste water for drinking and other purposes. And that's true also in parts of West Texas.

HEADLEE: Wow.

LEARY: And this comes at a time when there's a huge demand for water because we've had an enormous oil boom, and that uses a lot of water in the hydraulic fracturing process.

HEADLEE: Right. Well, let me go to you, Dana, because obviously water is a big issue in Colorado as there, and you've also had a very destructive fire season. What's the conversation among the people there where you are?

COFFIELD: Well, we have had sort of a turnaround in terms of the extremity of the drought this year. We've been having quite a bit of rain and, as a result, pretty massive flooding in our fire zones. But down in southeastern Colorado, which conveniently touches Texas, I think, we're in near Dust Bowl conditions. And we're seeing photography from farmers and ranchers in that area that rivals what you saw during the actual Dust Bowl of the 30s. Our water situation is somewhat similar to - it sounds like - to what happens in Texas.

We rely on snow runoff, and at the beginning of the season, we were very, very concerned that, you know - the skies opened up. We had seven feet of snow. Things looked better. It got hot, and then all of a sudden, all of Colorado was on fire. So we are constantly talking about climate. We're constantly talking about the interface between what we call the WUI - the wildland-urban interface - and this is the place where people move to Colorado. They want to live in the mountains. They want to be in the forest and they don't want to cut the trees down next to their home. So there are increasing numbers of people who are at great risk for losing their homes as a result of the climatic conditions and the sort of resistance to acknowledging that they are in that fire zone.

HEADLEE: I should mention that Colorado - I don't think Colorado ever touches Texas. I think Oklahoma sticks its little finger in between...

COFFIELD: Little finger in there. So it's close.

HEADLEE: ...In between Colorado and the Panhandle, but they do get very, very close. It's a short drive. You know, Dana, I have to ask you about something going on there. There's been reports that an area in northeastern Colorado actually attempted to succeed and form their own state. Can you explain what happened?

COFFIELD: It's not over yet. We still may see this on the fall ballot in 10 northeastern Colorado counties. And this has its origins at the feeling that people who live in rural areas are not being adequately represented in our State House. This is a huge area of Colorado with a very small population base, but it's also a mighty economic engine. And they're upset about issues related to the regulation of oil and gas exploration in the northeastern part of the state. They're upset by our new gun laws that were passed in the spring. They're troubled by some of the social issues that were proved in the state house, including acknowledgment of domestic partnerships. So it's a really interesting thing that's going on.

However, we did send a bunch of interns out to each of these counties to sort of find out is this a political topic that we're talking about, or are people on the ground really upset and want to be part of a 51st state. And the fact is that a lot of people are quite upset. They're worried about their water. They are worried about oil and gas. They are worried about agriculture and the drought conditions, and yet, many of them say they believe that creating another state is just the wrong path to go down. So it'll be on the ballot in the fall in maybe, I'm guessing, when it's over, six or seven counties.

HEADLEE: What would we do without interns? Mike, we only have about a minute left, but when you say secede, most people think of Texas, right? Is this still an issue there?

LEARY: No, not really. I think when Rick Perry ran for president the last time - the governor - that was clearly not part of his agenda. He'd kind of nodded a little bit when there was earlier talk. He may have seen a petition was filed - signed by roughly a hundred thousand Texans. This got a, you know, a little bit of media attention earlier this year, but nobody really takes it seriously.

HEADLEE: That's Mike Leary. He's editor of the San Antonio Express-News. He joined us from Texas Public Radio in San Antonio. Dana Coffield is the city editor of The Denver Post, and she joined us from Boulder, Colorado. Thanks to both of you.

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