A Conversation About The Future Of Water Michel Martin traveled to Fort Collins, Colo. to talk diverse panel of guests about drought, water rights and dealing with a future where water may be scarce.

A Conversation About The Future Of Water

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The tensions over water for growing food to sustain wildlife, for mining minerals, for drinking, bathing, having fun and as a source of spiritual sustenance - all of that was part of the conversation we called "The Future Of Water" held earlier this week in Fort Collins, Colo. We went there to work with our member station KUNC for this latest in our live event series we call Going There.

We're going to hear just a portion of that conversation with panelist Kathleen Curry. She's a former member of the Colorado state legislature and a member of a longtime ranching family. Patty Limerick, the Colorado state historian, was also with us. She's share of the board of the Center for the American West at the University of Colorado.

Also with us, Roger Fragua, a member of the Pueblo Jemez tribe and president of a company to support Native Americans in the development of water and energy resources and Paolo Bacigalupi, the award-winning author of a futuristic novel called "The Water Knife," which imagines a future defined by extreme water scarcity.

And we started by talking about the idea of water as something to own, not just something to use, beginning with Kathleen Curry.


KATHLEEN CURRY: There are folks that have come into Colorado and people who've lived here a long time, they would like to see water used different ways than the way it's been used traditionally. The senior water rights are primarily for mining and agriculture, and that drives a certain amount of tension in Colorado.

We hold senior rights on our creek. And if we aren't getting the amount of water that we're entitled to, we will call out the upper users and they will have to watch it go by. And it's a matter of financial welfare for our family. So it's a simple equation - if we can't divert enough water to produce enough hay, we can't feed our cattle. We don't make as much money. We can't pay the bills. It's about that.

What you see happening in a lot of Colorado I think is this desire to use water for other purposes that really don't involve raising food.

MARTIN: Patty, do you want to add to that?

PATTY LIMERICK: I do. So the uses have layered on, and I'm going to say something that will cause me to drive home under the Witness Protection Program...


LIMERICK: ...That in hindsight maybe installing conventional crop production in the American West wasn't the cleverest move. So - and I shall be - you won't recognize me when I leave here. I'll have a disguise on. And I will say I - as an American historian, as a citizen - I think agriculture and ranching are extremely vital and important elements of our culture.

A lot of what we consider the beauty, the open space, the Purple Mountains majesty, the open plains, that's agriculture that keeps those plains open. And if we - for some reason, if we become a society that really prefers condos to open plains, we can go there. So when I go through the suburbs, I'm going to have to be in Witness Protection as well I guess on that.

So as soon as you get a simple position, it means you haven't thought enough. So if you - which doesn't stop a lot of people...


LIMERICK: ...From doing that. So that's an interesting...

MARTIN: OK, but we have to dig into this because really this is where - where the rubber hits the road. I can't think...

CURRY: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Of a water metaphor. Sorry if I'm back east. Kathleen, look, most of the water in Colorado comes from the western slope, where you live. But most of the people are in the big cities on the east. Roger, I know you'll co-sign this - with few exceptions, some people in this country are told where to live, but the majority of people - the custom in the United States has been you can live wherever you want to live, right?

So what has to happen if there's too many people for too little water, what has to happen?

CURRY: I'm going to try to answer that question politely. I - I don't have a lot of sympathy for the newcomers. I'm sorry, I apologize but this is how the system works in Colorado, and the senior rights have priority. And if that were to be changed, it would have to be changed really with a constitutional amendment, not even just a statutory adjustment.

So having said that, I understand that we need to work together. But here's one idea - and that would be to show good faith on both sides and make sure that if there's going to be a transfer of water from rural to urban, that at least the urban entities are using the water they have wisely. And...


CURRY: And maybe show a true commitment to growth management. We...

MARTIN: And growth management means what? Everybody wants to live here can't, is that what that means?

CURRY: No, no, I'm sorry...

MARTIN: What does it mean?

CURRY: ...I should explain that. Growth management would mean perhaps smaller yards, less outdoor watering, more dense development versus sprawl that would use more water. That's what - out here - what kind of the catchphrase would be that - with growth management. Then you can have conversations about reallocating existing supplies, and those conversations would be much more civil because you could build more trust.

MARTIN: Roger, I want to bring you back in. What do you think we need to be thinking about that we're perhaps not thinking about?

ROGER FRAGUA: So I sit and I listened to the debate. When people talk about being last in the door and then shutting the door behind them, so we don't want any more newbies coming in behind us because we're - the pioneers are here. So if this Christian nation, right, under God really believes the book that it says - that God created this universe, he created plants, he created animals and then on the last day he created man, right? Then we're last; we're not first.

The winged the finned, the four-legged, who's lobbying for them? This isn't about the economy. I mean, no disrespect for to our ranchers. I mean, we're ranchers, too. And water has multiple uses. And it is economic, but it can't be about the economy. It can't be about the mighty dollar because in the end, what's that dollar going to buy you?

Water is life. And if you don't have water, you don't have life. And if you have money, so what?

MARTIN: Paolo, you're our kind of big thinker here. We're all big thinkers; I'm just giving you a title.

PAOLO BACIGALUPI: All right, I'll take it. I love it. My brain just expanded...


BACIGALUPI: ...Or at least my ego.

MARTIN: Well, I mean, Roger just told us that water is sacred in some of our cultures. But in others, why isn't it, in your view?

BACIGALUPI: Well, I think in the United States, I think that we like to address our natural world as commodities, not as sacred objects. The entire point of invading the North America was to make a lot of money and to prosper. And so if you have to go worship the forest, then you can't cut them down and ship the timber places.

MARTIN: So resources are something to subdue, not something with which we coexist.

BACIGALUPI: Someone to extract.

MARTIN: Extract.

BACIGALUPI: Yeah, yeah. One of the things that I'm fascinated about specifically is the idea of empathy. The problem is - seems to be that we do have this sense of empathy, mostly for our present self and our personal self. One of the things I'm really interested in is whether or not there's a way for us to engage with the idea of our future self or our children's future self.

If we can live inside of the shoes of that person 20 or 30 years out and what kind of world we hand off to them as if it's as important as we are in this moment, I think that we could start out actually having some actual successful conversations that would maybe allow us to innovate in positive directions.

MARTIN: I thank you all so much. We've only just scratched the surface. We'll have to come back. We'll just have to come back.


MARTIN: That was Paolo Bacigalupi and before him Roger Fragua, Patty Limerick and Kathleen Curry, all part of our panel conversation this week called Going There, "The Future Of Water." We spoke in Fort Collins, Colo. You can hear the rest of the conversation, which also included Flint, Mich., clean water activist Melissa Mays by going to npr.org.


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