Teal Lehto uses TikTok to comment on the West's water scarcity crisis.
Teal Lehto uses TikTok to comment on the West's water scarcity crisis.
DURANGO, Colo. — Teal Lehto honed her short, snappy explanations of the West's complex water problems guiding rafting trips down the Animas River in her hometown of Durango.
She often had lulls of a minute or less in between shouting paddle commands to the tourists in her boat — squeezing in a tidy explanation of how water rights work before yelling "all forward" to her boatmates to keep them from ramming into rocks.
After running the same stretch of river a few times a day for months, the timing became second nature.
"You get to the point where you're like, 'OK, I know I'm going to need to call a command in exactly 45 seconds. Like, what story can I tell in the meantime?' " Lehto said while sitting along the Animas on a rainy August morning.
"I'll tell you, the better stories you tell, the better tips you get," she said.
That same formula works on TikTok, just trade the tips for likes and followers.
On the app, Lehto goes by "WesternWaterGirl," and her clips regularly garner hundreds of thousands of views. Since joining the app in April, she's amassed nearly 48,000 followers who tune in for her fast-paced, snarky and often profanity-laced takes on the West's water crisis.
In her videos, the 25-year-old Lehto — with her straight brown hair and cat-eye makeup — sits in front of the camera, news anchor style. Photos of the Southwest's shrinking reservoirs and screengrabs of the latest scientific articles on Colorado River management pop up behind her. So far, she's tackled reservoir management, agricultural irrigation efficiency, cloud seeding and hydropower.
The region's water infrastructure, and the problems that come with managing it, is confusing. Water in the arid West is plumbed long distances to irrigate lawns and crop fields that would wither without it. Layer on the legal frameworks and political landscapes, and it's an issue that can feel impenetrable for most people, even if they have a desire to learn more, Lehto said.
She learned about water as an environmental studies major at Durango's Fort Lewis College and started a student group that took field trips to water-specific infrastructure nearby. Most residents of the West aren't getting the same crash course.
The Colorado River has been a focus since she started making videos earlier this year. Tens of millions depend on the river, and it's facing a serious shortfall in supply. The concepts can be hard to grasp at first, which is why Lehto said she tries to avoid the jargon that comes with the heavily engineered systems used to plumb the arid West.
Or, if it's warranted, she jumps into the jargon full-speed, like her 90-second explainer of why large volumes of water are measured in "acre-feet" (that one currently has 215,000 views). Or her critique of proposals to supplement the West's water supply with a pipeline from the East (that's at 209,000 views).
"I get comments that are like, 'Wow, you just connected a lot of dots for me. Like, I understood pieces of this, but you're the first person who explained it in terms I can understand,' " Lehto said.
Lehto grew up rafting the streams of southwestern Colorado with her family. But a couple of events, in particular, changed how she saw her hometown river, the Animas, and its role in the larger Colorado River watershed.
The first came on an August morning in 2015. She was working at a local rafting outfitter when the sheriff's office called.
"They said, 'I don't know what you're planning on doing today, but you're not going to be able to go rafting,' " Lehto recalled.
A plume of neon orange wastewater released from the Gold King Mine into the Animas was making its way toward Durango. The river was closed to recreation because of it. As the news spread, Lehto, 17 years old at the time, found herself fielding calls from journalists all over the world wanting to hear how locals were reacting.
"I had no idea the scale of the issue nor what to say to those people," Lehto said.
A few years later, as a college student, Lehto watched as the 416 Fire burned more than 54,000 acres in the forests surrounding Durango. Again, the Animas felt the effects, as monsoonal rain storms swept ashen debris and scorched sediment into the river, nearly wiping out the river's fish population. She recalls guiding trips down the river shortly thereafter and seeing dozens of dead fish caught in eddies.
"It was such a visual and visceral example of the river ecosystem dying," Lehto said. "And those two experiences made me really feel the need to jump into protecting the river that I live on."
Around the same time, Lehto was putting more of her energy into competitive raft racing. From 2017 to 2019, Lehto's junior women's team competed in Japan, China and Argentina. Using Google Translate, she was able to connect with members of the other teams, and the one thing they all had in common was a love of rivers.
"It made me realize that it doesn't matter where you are, what government you live under, or what language you speak, whatever river you live near has some kind of issue that's facing it," Lehto said. "And everybody is a member of a watershed community whether or not they know it."
'Screw this. I'm going to make my own platform'
Lehto came to TikTok after feeling shut out of more traditional forums.
After being rejected in early 2022 for a county-appointed seat on the Southwest Basin Roundtable, a watershed group focused on her local rivers, she went searching for other ways to be heard. TikTok rose to the top of the list.
"I was like, 'Screw this. I'm going to make my own platform with my own voice, and I can say whatever I want,' " Lehto said.
She quickly picked up the tone and style that the TikTok algorithm rewarded. Videos in which she spoke quickly did well. So did those in which she reacted to other users' clips of declining reservoirs. Videos in which she teases a revealing tidbit in the first 20 seconds but then holds off on the answer until the end of the clip also garnered views.
The app's users appreciate straight-talk about niche passions, Lehto said. And that's exactly what she's serving up. So, she said, what started as a place to vent frustrations quickly became a place where Lehto could be heard by an audience more than twice the size of the city she lived in.
TikTok can be easily dismissed as "that dancing app" by those in the water management community, Lehto said. But she said those making decisions should be paying attention to what she and other social media influencers are saying.
"A lot of what's happening in the water conservation world is happening in an echo chamber. They're just talking to themselves and the general public is not hearing it or what they're hearing is just little snippets, so they don't understand it," Lehto said.
Since going viral, Lehto's TikToks have caught the attention of others in the world of water. Bronson Mack is a public information officer for the Southern Nevada Water Authority and helps manage the agency's social media. He and others at SNWA came across Lehto just by scrolling.
"More than anything, the impact that we saw with that is how direct and accurate the information was," Mack said.
As the Colorado River's water shortage pops up more in national headlines, Mack said he's seen an increase in misinformation. He recently got several calls from concerned residents about a train allegedly taking water to Nevada's desert communities. No such train operation exists.
Lehto has taken to the platform to debunk conspiracy theories as well. When real-world explanations can be nuanced and complicated, she said it's understandable that people gravitate to the simplest message.
"They're receiving this misinformation in really easy to understand terms," Lehto said. "And the real information is not being explained and super easy to understand terms. And that's where I like to step in."
TikTok can become a career path for would-be influencers, a label Lehto is still apprehensive about adopting herself. More water agencies and environmental groups are reaching out to her with offers to collaborate — turning her hobby into a money-making opportunity. The timing is right, she said, because she has already found an audience.
The Southwest is reaching a moment of reckoning on water management, she said, and finding a good solution will require everyone to know how it works.
"The people who are so close to this problem, they have tunnel vision," she said. "They're not able to take a step back and be like, 'Well, this whole system does not make any sense.' They're just like, 'We have to keep using it this way. This is how we've always done it.' "
In one of her latest clips, Lehto zipped through the most recent news on the river, that the Colorado River basin states missed a federal deadline to commit to conservation. But rather than just leave it there, she issued a call to action on the platform:
"If enough of us are talking about it, then water managers and elected officials in the Southwest might feel pressure to actually change the system."
This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced by KUNC in northern Colorado, and supported by the Walton Family Foundation.