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A Conversation About The Future Of Water

As part of the Going There series, Michel Martin traveled to Fort Collins, Colo. to host a live storytelling event about owning water and dealing with a future where water may be scarce. The conversation was held in partnership with member station KUNC. It tackled the water issues in the Western United States while also highlighting the water crisis in Flint, Mich. and the challenges faced by Native American communities.

The event featured panelists including author Paolo Bacigalupi, rancher Kathleen Curry, Tribal energy and economic consultant Roger Fragua, Colorado state historian Patty Limerick and clean water activist Melissa Mays. The event also featured performances by the Seven Falls Indian Hoop Dancers and poet Lori Howe.

You can watch the full event here.

Interview Highlights:

Limerick on where the West stands now with its water resources

What used to work pretty darn well was to do studies of water. Precipitation patterns, chart goes out and look at what's likely in the future. Now there's no such probability, there's no such new way of appraising where we are and predicting it. So, it's unsettling and it's uncomfortable and it is a spectacular chance to think and to listen and to pay attention to each other. And to look at our habits and our customs and to say, are those necessary? Are those the way we have to be? Do we have more choice?

Bacigalupi on how growing up in the west affected the way he understands water scarcity

I also come from the western slope and so I grew up seeing where my water comes from. I can see the mountains, I can see how much snow is on them. I see that water flow through the Fire Mountain Canal where my family has a few shares that then water our properties. You can see what you grow depending on this very specific set of water systems. You also see that during a drought year and you know there's going to be a call on the river. What happens is, there's still water in the river, but you can't touch it. You have to watch it flow down to someone else who owns a more senior right than you do and we have very junior rights. The way that water gets allocated is that the senior rights gets all of theirs and the junior rights gets none of theirs in a drought situation, in a scarcity situation. So, you grow up seeing that. You're aware of it. The idea that past data would not necessarily predict what our future experience would be for me as a writer was really, really rich because there's so many question marks out there.

Curry on current conflicts about water in the Colorado

We are reallocating a finite resource and I think that drives the tension. The number one issue from my point of view would be that there's not enough water to go around to meet all of the needs. 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. 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 don't pay the bills. So what you see happening in a lot of Colorado is this desire to use water for other purposes that really don't involve raising food.

Mays on her experience living in Flint during the water crisis

We started breaking out in rashes, my hair started falling out in handfuls, my sons started losing their hair. We started having weird, odd side effects, breathing issues. Our county health department didn't tell us, our state didn't tell us, nobody warned the doctors. So, all these people are getting sick, nobody can understand why we're so weak. Why do we have all these muscle pains? Why can't I feel my bones? What's going on? They downplayed everything until January of 2009. I'm standing there in my living room holding a letter from the city that says "by the way, for the past nine months, your water has been contaminated with a cancer-causing byproduct." As we fought and fought, we forced them to admit that there's a problem. We forced them to switch our water sources back. This has been citizen driven. That's the only reason anybody knows anything about Flint is because the residents are like "that's enough." Water is a human right.

Fragua on American Indians ignored during crisis

We were Flint long before Flint. No disrespect to the hundred thousand people in Flint. There's nobody more impoverished than the Indian community. There's nobody more deserving than the Indian community. There's nobody that has more senior water rights than the Indian community. Our plight is not in the news. We don't make the front page of Newsweek and the New York Times. Flint lives matter. Indian lives matter, but we've been at it for a few hundred years. This isn't like the last decade drinking contaminated water. So, we've been at this for a very long time. We've had experience of being the ignored, the polluted, the poisoned and yet nobody's listening. How do we get our story out there?

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Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
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