Is the American Southwest Running Dry?

Media

Twisting through seven states before reaching Mexico, the Colorado River is the lifeline of the American Southwest. But with increasing population, thoughtless development and the added pressures of climate change, the river -- and the region -- are in dire straights.


In the documentary The American Southwest: Are We Running Dry?, filmmaker Jim Thebaut looks at the state of the Southwest's water and if there will be enough to go around. He examines stressed water sources like the Colorado River, the Rio Grande and the Sacramento-San Joaquin river system in California, as well as Lake Powell, which straddles Utah and Arizona on the Colorado River, and Lake Mead, also on the Colorado, between Nevada and Arizona.

With interviews from policymakers, congressional members, scientists and water experts, Thebaut issues a wake-up call for not just the Southwest, but the whole country. The film takes a critical eye to cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Albuquerque and Palm Springs, Calif. There is also a special focus on Native American communities, which are particularly hard hit by our country's poor water management and environmental oversight. Lacking political leverage, many Native American communities lack adequate clean, safe drinking water.

The film was inspired by the book, Tapped Out: The Coming World Crisis in Water and What We Can Do About It, published by the late Sen. Paul Simon in 1998. And Thebaut attempts to not just paint a grim picture of reality, but to offer some solutions. Thebaut is a veteran filmmaker who produced the film Running Dry about the global water crisis. He has a background in planning and therefore pays close attention to development and the ways in which water policy should be intertwined with our plans for growth.

Thebaut is a strong advocate for a comprehensive national water policy that brings all parties to the table. And he has called the Bush administration's approach to water management "borderline immoral."

Tara Lohan: So what inspired you to do this?

Jim Thebaut: It goes way back. I have a degree in landscape architecture and planning. And for a few years I was a planner in the Northwest, and I used to do environmental impact statements for planning studies. I also used to produce environmental documentaries in Seattle. When I first became aware of Sen. Paul Simon's work and read his book, Tapped Out, it just seemed like a natural for me to put something together. It is an overall project to educate everyone about the global, humanitarian water crises. That's why I've gone about as I have, with two different documentaries and versions of each.

TL: What was one of the most shocking things you learned about water in the Southwest while working on this?

JT: The gravity of the problem. The fact that the Colorado is the lowest level it has ever been, and that chances are there is not going to be enough water to generate energy at the Hoover Dam. The ramifications of that are pretty profound. Just imagine that the water is so low in the Colorado that it cannot support our agriculture community, that it cannot support our energy systems, and just suppose that, like in some developing countries, that water is only available every two or three days. And just imagine there would be communities that will not get any water all. And I'm really worried about the Native American community.

And then the other big deal is our depletion of groundwater. That is the reason I did this documentary. I did Running Dry, which was to alert the world to the global water crisis. But as I was rolling it out across the U.S., I became quickly aware that the American public have an odd way of looking at the rest of the world. They don't relate to it as being part of their world. And when I present the reality that every 15 seconds a child dies from a lack of water or water-related diseases, they always think, "that's over there, it doesn't have anything to do with us."

So, my goal was to bring the crises home to everyone's front doorstep.

TL: Do you think folks are starting to get it?

JT: Well, it depends on the community. People are so overwhelmed by crises. We are in the midst of this horrifying economic crisis, we got people losing their houses and their jobs. It is hard to grasp the reality of some other crises coming down the path. There has been a lot of media, but we need to educate the body politic, educate public policymakers. They've been somewhat receptive. But we've got to keep the hammer down.

TL: In the film, you interview a lot of politicians. Who are the best at taking on this issue?

JT: All folks in the film are receptive. And mostly all of them are the Southwest, except (Rep. Edward J.) Markey, D-Mass., who is also acutely aware. (Sen. Jeff) Bingaman, D-N.M., and (Sen. and our next Interior Secretary Ken) Salazar, D-Colo., and (Sen. Jon) Kyl R-Ariz., were all former attorneys general and water lawyers, so they are also able to provide a lot of insight into the issue.

Another one is (Rep. Mary) Bono Mack, R-Calif., in Palm Springs where there are global-warming issues that will affect that area, and she is very aware of that. All those people, I think are all aware and have a level of expertise. They all said the same thing, whether Republican or Democrat, it transcends political ideology, it is a people issue.

TL: Are any of them making any effort to combat this with legislation?

JT: There are some efforts with legislation. I just wrote a paper with Dr. Eric Webb, who now works at Sandia National Labs. We have 20 agencies in the federal government that all deal with water. So essentially, our shots are being scattered. We thought it was important to have a central office under the White House to deal with these issues -- something that would be under the office of Counsel of Environment Quality.

The past administration has been beyond negligent -- borderline immoral in that they haven't addressed these issues. We have infrastructure problems. We lose 40 percent of our water in some of our major cities because the infrastructure is 100 years old.

Being an environmental planner, I'm a land-use person, and I think we need a paradigm shift in the way we live our lives and plan our communities.

TL : As a planner, does looking at the way Southwest communities are growing make you crazy?

JT: We do have uncontrolled growth, but it's not just in the Southwest.

Is Seattle making the same mistakes L.A. is making? I produced my first documentary called the Tale of Two Cities, which looked at L.A. and Seattle. And Seattle is, actually, making many of the same mistakes. I think there has been some growth management in the Northwest, it is a different ethic. But I worry about uncontrolled growth and sprawl. The other thing, is that we just hit 300 million people, we are getting big. It is projected that by the middle of this century we will be well over 400 million, and much is projected for the Southwest. We need to plan how to deal with this incredible growth so that we don't compromise the integrity of the environment.

We have to be smart and creative and elect people who get it and have an ethic around water issues.

TL: What are the solutions?

JT: There are so many issues -- every region needs to be self-sufficient. I'm an advocate for reuse but that takes a lot of education. We need to look at the whole issue of public good versus private land ownership. We can't continue to allow people to be able to just mine groundwater. We need education. We need to educate citizens on the gravity of the problem.

We need to look at land-use planning and how we are going to build in the future. The days are over for sprawling everywhere. When we are building, we need to be thinking about how we build and the kinds of materials. And water is so tied into energy. We need more conservation. Conservation is good economics. We need to look at technology and look at alternative energy systems. I think we need to go into areas of solar and wind and new, creative kinds of approaches.

Then there is desalination. I think desalination has a place in the future, but I don't think it is silver bullet. It costs a lot of money, uses tremendous amounts of energy and has a significant environmental impact. But there might be ways that we can use new technology that will help desalination not use so much energy.

I think mostly, we need to start looking at water issues as part of the big picture -- we need big-picture plans regionally and nationally.

We need to adhere to the laws we have, like the National Environmental Policy Act. It always boggles my mind, even environmental organizations don't understand the gravity of the greatest environmental law ever created. If we use it effectively for decision-making, it would solve a lot of problems.

TL: What about a national water policy?

JT: We don't have one. We need to get everyone around the table to help come up with one and implement it. I think we need to start prioritizing what needs to be done. We need regional and local policy, and we need an national overview. The Southwest has its own issues, but so does the Midwest and the Southeast. Infrastructure is one of the main things, and so is groundwater. Many states, like California and Texas, have no laws dealing with groundwater issues. We need to educate people on the issues related to the depletion of groundwater.

I picked on Phoenix a little. But water goes there at the expense of the rest of the state, and it is de-watering the rivers and the ecosystems. We need to look at issues from an environmental perspective. Too often we look at supply but do so at the expense of natural systems. You can't come up with good water policy without looking at land-use planning. Planning with nature is really an important issue. You have to plan within an ecological system, and education is an important part of that.

We need curriculum for schools and to help get teachers to focus on these issues. And on the relationship between energy and water, as well as agriculture and water.

We need to solve our own problem in our country to have credibility in the rest of the world. And we have to be able to help our Native Americans. If we don't help our indigenous people, what kind of credibility do we have with the rest of the world?

Whatever solutions we come up with, everyone needs to be at the table -- Native Americans, the environmental community, activists, engineers, scientists and policymakers.

TL: We recently saw Atlanta nearly run out of water completely. Does any state or region seem to have a backup plan for severe drought and overuse?

JT: No one has a plan, that's why we need to plan now. The "Global Trend 2025" study on the CIA Web site shows that certain regions of the world will really be affected by climate change, and the American Southwest could be a dust bowl. Is there a Plan B? No. We need to start planning a national water policy that looks at each region and what we can do to mitigate. And we gotta do it now.

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