American Scandal

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Every scandal begins with a lie. But the truth will come out. And then comes the fallout and the outrage.

Scandals have shaped America since its founding. From business and politics to sports and society, we look on aghast as corruption, deceit and ambition bring down heroes and celebrities, politicians and moguls. And when the dust finally settles, we’re left to wonder: how did this happen? Where did they trip up, and who is to blame? From the creators of American History Tellers, Business Wars and Tides of History comes American Scandal, where we take you deep into the heart of America’s dark side to look at what drives someone to break the rules and what happens when they’re caught. Hosted by Lindsay Graham.

LA Steals Its Water | Crisis in the West | 4

LA Steals Its Water | Crisis in the West | 4

Tue, 02 Nov 2021 07:01

In this interview, Lindsay chats with David Owen, the author of 'Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River.' The two explore how water scarcity is a mounting issue out West—one that affects the entire country. And they consider some of the solutions that could help curb the growing crisis.

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To listen to American scandal one week early and add free, join Wondry Plus in the Wondry app. Download the Wondry app in your Apple or Google Play mobile app store today. From Wondry, I'm Lindsey Graham and this is American Scam. In the early 1900s, Los Angeles faced a grave problem. The young city's population was booming as Americans flocked to a warm desert climate. At the same time, LA was quickly running out of water. City leaders proposed a bold solution. Spear headed by LA's water superintendent William Moll Holland and the city's former mayor, Freddie, Los Angeles planned to build a 200 mile long aqueduct. It would divert water from the Owens River far north of Los Angeles and transport it through mountains and deserts all the way back to LA. The city moved ahead with construction, but it led to a bitter war with residents in Inyo County who believed that their water had been stolen. And while LA came out victorious, the conflict highlighted the enormous stakes in fights over scarce natural resources. It's a problem that's reemerging today as Americans confront the devastations of climate change, including rapidly diminishing water supplies in the west. My guest today is David Owen, a journalist and author of Where the Water Goes, which explores how conditions are becoming grim on the Colorado River, a water source for seven western states. Owen is also the author of more than a dozen books whose topics range from hearing loss to green living to professional golf. In our conversation, we'll look at how water scarcity is a mounting issue in the west, but one that affects the entire country. And we'll explore some of the solutions that could help curb a growing crisis. Our conversation is next. Lots of people don't know it, but autumn is an ideal time to plant. shorter days and cooler nights create ideal conditions for the plants to get established. If you're looking to spruce up your home, proven winners color choice shrubs has an amazing selection of flowering shrubs and evergreens for planting and gardens and landscapes. With around 320 different proprietary varieties, including classics limelight, hydrangea, and little Henry sweet spire, all of their shrubs are trialed and tested for eight to 10 years to ensure they outperform anything else on the market. Look for proven winners color choice shrubs in the distinctive white containers at your local garden center. Learn more and find a local retailer at proven winners color choice dot com slash wonder that's proven winners color choice dot com slash wonder. David Owen, welcome to American scandal. Hello, great to be here. Let's start first with just a broad overview of the Colorado River. Where does it run and how big is it? It's not just Colorado. No, it's not just Colorado. The headwaters are in northern Colorado, north central Colorado, and it runs kind of diagonally across the western United States into the northern end of the Gulf of California, although it's been many years since it actually reached the Gulf of California. It's done so once in the past few decades. We use all the water up before it gets to where it used to end when it ran naturally. And either crosses are as fed by rivers from seven western states plus Mexico and in all those places, the water from the Colorado is extremely important. So I guess that's an indication of how important it is and if we use the entirety of its output, it doesn't reach its terminus anymore. So explain to me, I guess, a little more about how important it is in western states and how we use it. It's a relatively small river. As rivers go, the Mississippi River carries the entire annual flow of the Colorado every two or three weeks. And more often now that the Colorado is not carrying as much water as it has many times in the past. And yet there's something like 40 million people who rely on it one way or another. A huge amount of agricultural use, 80% of the water that is diverted from the Colorado goes into irrigating agriculture. And assuming we are vegetables during the winter, we all depend on those agricultural products, both from the United States and from Mexico. And in addition, it has any number of recreational uses. It's one of the most popular features in the American National Park system is there too. You know, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, they're both reservoirs on the Colorado River. And both are being stressed at the moment to say the least. They're lower than they've been since either of those reservoirs is filled. They're, you know, well under 40% of their total capacity. And the amount that's missing is easy to see because if you go to Lake Mead for example, you see this what's referred to as the bathtub ring. It's a band of mineral deposits around the entire perimeter of the lake. And it's hard to get a sense of the scale of that bathtub ring. If you look at it from a distance, but if you're on a boat in the water, you get right up close to it. You see it's big. And it's over 130 feet from the surface of the water to the top of the bathtub ring. And it's just not that long ago, just 23 years ago, the lake was filled all the way to the top. Now it looks like it's circling the drain. So in 23 years, the reservoirs have dropped over 130 feet. That clearly indicates the kind of stress that the river is under. And it's one of the main ideas that you explore in your book, Where the Water Goes. What are the threats to the Colorado? What's happening to it? The sort of the original threat, and it's a structural threat, is that when the river was divided up by the states that depend on it, the scientists thought that there was more water in it than there actually is. They had the misfortune to measure its flow of what has turned out to be the widest period in a very, very, very long time. And so there was an overestimate of how much water is in it. And since then, the more direct threat right now is climate change. And most of the water in that river arises in snowpack at the northern end of its drainage basin. So it's snow that falls in the Rocky Mountains that feeds the Colorado river. And there's less snow falling in those places. And so there's less water going into it. I photographed with my wife and me standing an independence pass outside of Aspen, Colorado. A few years ago, it was in early spring, the highway there had just been plowed open, it just been open for the season. But we were standing in snow banks and I think it was in June, this huge amount of snow. A lot of that snow was on its way eventually to the Mexican border to farmers all the way along the course of the Colorado. And there's less of that now, and that's a huge problem. So how bad has the situation gotten and is this trend changing, accelerating? It does seem to be accelerating. And I think people for a long time were talking about a drought in the West. And now it may make more sense to talk about the sort of the permanent eradification of the West. Nobody talks about there being a drought in the Sahara Desert, for example. It's just the condition in that part of the world. That people who study back through moisture levels through geological history, studying tree rings and things like that have found that there were periods in the past that lasting in some cases over 100 years of extremely dry conditions. And yet the drop off that we've seen in the past 20, 25 years is more severe than any of those. It's different. So even though there have been dry periods in the past, this one is historically bad. It seems to be, it hasn't lasted 140 years yet. But we don't know what the weather's going to do, but nobody looks at it and thinks, okay, in a couple of years we'll have this trend will reverse and we'll have torrential rains and Lake Powell and Lake Meade will fill up again to where they were in 1998. Another reason that this is a challenge now and wasn't necessarily at many points in its history is that it took a long time before people were able to divert as much water from the Colorado as they do now. So for a long time, the overestimate of the amount of water in the river was, it didn't matter because there was more water in the river than people could divert out of it. That's not the case now. Well, let's go through the reasons why the Colorado might be in peril. We've mentioned a few of them. There was an initial overestimate of how much water was in there and to begin with. There is recently just mentioned more withdrawal, but go through in general and inform us about how the water's being used. When I wrote my book, I started at the headwaters, actually an airplane above the headwaters and I followed the river, not on the river itself, but in a car all the way to the end. It's remarkable how much use human beings get from that river. It supports a huge amount of agriculture, supports people living in cities. In some cases, hundreds of miles away from the river itself. The water is channeled through early and mid 20th century infrastructure that carries it to far away through tunnels and pumps and intermediate reservoirs and really amazing human constructions. It also supports a remarkable amount of recreation. People have seen photographs of lakes in California or Lake Powell, where the houseboats clustering closer and closer together in this ever shrinking lake that people used to zoom around on in their houseboats and on their jet skis. Now they look like they're huddling together in a puddle. The recreation also makes a huge contribution, is an economic contribution from the river. The Grand Canyon was created by the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon is a huge recreational destination for people in the United States and elsewhere. All these uses, all these human uses depend on, there being water in the Colorado River and then there's all the ecological dependence, the environmental dependence. This river is a principle water source through a part of the country that doesn't receive a lot of rainfall and it's extraordinarily important to it. Let's discuss about how the Colorado River its water was divvied up. You know, many states, tons of cities and municipalities rely on it and they came together and formed the Colorado River Compact. Can you explain to me what that agreement is? Yes, and it's a complicated explanation because Western water law is different from water law in other parts of the country. I have a book that's called Western Water Law for non lawyers and it's very helpful. In the Eastern United States, where I live in, in England where our body of common law arose, the river for example is shared equitably by landholders who border that river. That turned out not to work in the West where water was so scarce that dividing it up often made it useless for everybody who divided it up. In the West, there arose first with miners, gold miners and then with farmers, I kind of alternate legal system called prior appropriation, first in time, first in right. The idea was that the first person to make a legal use of water diverted from a stream gained the right to use that much water for that purpose forever. The right to do that was assigned in order of priority. The first person to use water for a legal purpose had priority over anybody who came later. The reason that arose with miners is that if you're a gold miner, you have a slew box, you use an extraordinary amount of water, you're rushing it over dirt and gold is left in the bottom. If somebody upstream from you diverse water for that same purpose, you no longer have enough water to do it yourself and sharing it doesn't work because when that happens, a meter miner has enough. And so, after people got tired of shooting each other and fighting, they devised this kind of separate legal system. The system that allocates one way or another much of the water in the western United States. In the early part of the 20th century, people who lived in states other than California, who had their eyes on the Colorado River, began to worry that California was going to develop so fast and grow so fast that it would establish a priority claim on all the water in the Colorado River before any of the other states were in a position to use their own. And so, that led to complex negotiations first in Washington and then elsewhere that resulted in an agreement called the Colorado River Compact. It's seven states that either board of the river or tributaries that feed it and they divided it up. And in one form or another, that compact, it's evolved, but it still exists, this division of the river. And the tragedy is that at the time they divided it up, there was more water in the river than there has been ever since. And they divided up water that wasn't there. And that's causing problems now. It didn't cause problems for a long time because they just didn't have the technology to take out as much water as their agreements were based on. But it's causing problems now both because the river has been over allocated as the term for it. And then also because there's much less water in the river now than people thought there was then. Well, just to clarify, it seems like it might have been poor planning to drop an agreement on, I guess, units of water rather than percentages of water. Is that the case? There were many difficulties that this group faced. And they solved one of them by dividing the river into two sort of fictional basins, the upper basin and the lower basin. And then decided that they would determine later how to divide up water among the states in those different regions. In the northern basin, the northern states, they divided it by percentage. But the southern states, California, Arizona, Nevada, divided it by actual water amounts, which are fictional in terms of what's actually in the river. And that's caused problems. It's the source of the main problems that we're facing right now. Is that there's, they've laid claim to more water than is in the river. And then in addition, California was always allowed to take more than its allotment as long as it wasn't harming anyone else. So California grew just as the people who worried about dividing up the color river knew that it would and came to depend on quantities of water that have turned out not to be there. So the Colorado river is drying up and water sources growing more scarce. What kind of incentive do the states have to cut back the amount of water they use? One of the features of the whole prior appropriation concept is that your right to draw water continues forever as long as you draw that water. So you have no incentive to cut back from your allotment from your legal allotment because if you don't take everything you're entitled to, you can lose that right. There are any number of forces legal and otherwise they make it difficult to take less water out of the river than people take out. If you're into true crime, the Generation Y podcast is essential listening. We started this podcast over 10 years ago to dissect some of the craziest and most notable murders, crimes and conspiracy theories together and we'd love for you to join us. Generation Y is one of the longest running true crime podcasts out there and we are still at it, unraveling a new case every week. We break down infamous cases like the Evil Genius Bank robbery and lesser known cases like the case of Kimberly Rico. Did she actually kill her husband after they took part in a murder mystery game? We cover every angle, breaking down theories, diving deep into forensic evidence and interviewing those close to the case and with over 450 episodes, there's a little something for every true crime listener. Follow the Generation Y podcast on Amazon Music or every listen to podcasts or you can listen ad free by joining Wondry Plus in the Wondry app. We're approaching the 100th anniversary of the Colorado River Compact next year. So that's a lot of time to develop an infrastructure to withdraw water from the Colorado. So let's discuss about the engineering. Many of the cities and towns that use this water are very far away from the river itself. So how do they move this water? They move it through this extraordinary infrastructure. The Hoover Dam is the biggest, most obvious piece on the river and it was built originally, mostly not to store water, generate electricity, but to protect agriculture below Hoover Dam from devastating flooding, which had always occurred. Far the downstream, another dam, Parker Dam, created a lake called Lake Havasu on the border between Arizona and California. And it's a huge amount of water from Lake Havasu flows now eastward into Arizona. A huge amount flows westward toward Los Angeles. And then what's left flows along the border of Arizona and California, eventually into Mexico. It's kind of the last dividing point where the what's left of the river by that point is is finally divided up. And the system that carries water from Lake Havasu to Los Angeles is extraordinary. It's, it's, I don't think, I think it's like 250 miles. The water has to be lifted over mountain ranges. It goes through tunnels and into reservoirs. It's pumped up and it flows down and it goes through its siphons that carry it under desert washes. It's really amazing. And it gets all the way to metropolitan Los Angeles from this artificial lake in the middle of nowhere. As you drive along through Southern California, very Southern California, you can occasionally see parts of this infrastructure, these huge, huge pipes leading up the sides of mountains and sometimes into reservoirs into pumping stations and it gets moved along and moved along until it finally ends up in metropolitan LA. It began as a Mulholland project and wasn't finished until after he had died, but it's a it's part of that legacy. And he had realized that the water, for example, the Owens Valley was not going to be sufficient to meet the needs of greater Los Angeles as a crew. And so they had to find more water someplace in the Colorado River, where's the place where they found it. Well, this series on American scandal was about the Owens River Valley and Mulholland's early attempts to what and successful attempts to move that water to Los Angeles. I'm interested to hear that he did it a second time. Although you mentioned he didn't live to see it finished, did he face the same sort of travails and backlash? You know, I don't know how much backlash it was. It's really an extraordinary engineering project. You step back and you have to admire it. The pumps that get the water started on that journey are incredible. In this case, the water was not being drawn from an existing agricultural area where people were living and where the lives were being ruined by the loss of the water from it. The lake was created in order to store water that could then be pumped to Los Angeles. The dam Parker Dam, it doesn't look like much, but it's actually it's I think it's sometimes to be the deepest dam, but it's like 250 feet deep to concrete goes down. They had to go that far through the salt from the Colorado in order to reach bedrock for it to sit on. So it's an amazingly complex piece of water moving machinery. How you feel about it and even about the Owens Valley depends on how you feel about Southern California, that the life in Los Angeles and metropolitan Los Angeles and San Diego would not be possible as we know it without these extraordinary water moving projects. I know that I always envy friends who lived in LA because I think they grow lemons and grapefruit in their yards and I always thought of that as something that was just part of the natural environment of Southern California, but it's not at all. It's virtually a desert region without all that all the beautiful flowers, all the palm trees, for example, in Los Angeles. People think of that as an emblem of LA, but they're all they were none there to begin with and they all depend heavily on water from elsewhere. As a bit of an aside, I just mapped the location of the Parker Dam and you're correct. The engineering feed is amazing. The Parker Dam seems to be closer to Phoenix or Las Vegas than it is to Los Angeles. Yes, exactly. The west side of the dam is the outlet that leads to greater Los Angeles. On the right side is the beginning of a different project, which is even more extraordinary in many ways than the aqueducted leads to LA. It's this canal and tunnel system that leads all the way to Tucson and Phoenix. Once I knew that these things existed, you look for them from an airplane. If you're on an airplane, where people will let you open the shades, you look down and you see these lines of these aqueducts, concrete lined aqueducts that are carrying water extraordinary distances across real desert. I just mentioned another desert city that uses a lot of water, Las Vegas, and you write about it in your book. Specifically, you look at, for instance, the Bellagio Hotel and it's a large manmade lake. You point to it as something that people often look at as an example of the sort of wonton waste that got the west into water trouble in the first place. I'm quoting you. But you argue that this response is actually wrong. Why is that? People focus on Las Vegas because of all the cities that depend on the Colorado River. It's the closest. It's right there. It's very close to Lake Mead and the Colorado River. People tend to assume that that must be where the water is going. They don't think of Los Angeles or Salt Lake City or Phoenix or Tucson as cities that draw water from the river even though they are and even though they draw much more than Las Vegas does. When the river was divided up back in the 1920s, Nevada was minimally populated. Las Vegas was a tiny town. I think the population of like 5,000 people. So Nevada is a lot in the Colorado River compact is very small, much smaller than California's or Arizona's. But because it's right there, people focus on it. The Bellagio Hotel is an easy target because it has this immense water feature in front of it, gigantic computer controlled fountains. And it looks like this must be where all the water from Lake Mead has gone. But it's not. It's like you can get rid of those fountains in that lake and put it back in Lake Mead and the water level would rise by an amount you couldn't measure. It would be a tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of an inch. Whereas the states that draw water from it take huge amounts and you know, measured in feet, tens of feet every year. So it's easy to look at Las Vegas and think of it as the problem, but it's really not. And Las Vegas also because Nevada has had this relatively small, a lot of water from the river probably has more advanced conservation rules and regulations than most other places in the United States do. There's something like I can't remember 90 something percent of water that goes down a drain in Las Vegas ends up back in Lake Mead. It's processed, it's returned. People aren't allowed to, they're only allowed to wash their cars and water their little lawns infrequently. And so it looks like the problem, but it's not. It sounds like what you're describing is that Las Vegas having grown up as a city after receiving its initial small allotment has become perhaps on the vanguard of water conservation. What else is it doing? It has had a very four sightful group of people who have looked after the water. And so it has banked water in the ground. It has reserves underground. It has built really extraordinary, multi hundred million dollar infrastructure to draw water from Lake Mead. One of the threats that's at the moment is still a long term threat is the possibility that the water level in Lake Mead could drop below the level that's known as dead pool, which is the level below the lowest outlets in Hoover Dam. Once the water fell before below that level, none would flow downstream from Hoover Dam. It wouldn't reach the outlets and wouldn't go over the dam and wouldn't go down the river. Southern Nevada has the ability to draw water from below dead pool from Wafar down. They built a huge tunnel into the basically into the bottom of the lake in a huge pumping station and they have the infrastructure to do it. So it is hypothetical super mega drought future when diverters below that Hoover Dam wouldn't be able to there would be no water for them to draw. Southern Nevada would still be able to draw water from Lake Mead. So we've set up a system of conservation, of recycling, of even technological innovation in the case of Las Vegas tapping into below the dead pool level of Lake Mead. What else is there for the western states to do without perhaps building a giant pipe from somewhere else in the country? Yeah, and there was an assumption early on, you know, back in the 70s, people just assumed that, you know, someday we'll just pipe water down from somewhere else. You know, maybe we'll drain one of the great lakes or something like that. I don't know. It's, you know, one one challenge is that we tend to focus on cities, but actually the main user of Colorado River water is agriculture or something like 80% of the water that's diverted from the river goes to irrigate agriculture in one form or another. Mostly California is on. You can do less of that, you can irrigate less, but that entails problems too. One of the reasons that the crisis has been postponed for a long time is that waste is really a kind of reservoir. If you are careless with how you use water, you can always use less and achieve the same result. But as you get closer and closer to the point where you're not wasting anymore, you become so efficient that, you know, you're putting every drop to use, then a single crisis can knock the entire system down, it becomes much more, a very efficient system is much more vulnerable to a relatively small crisis than a nice, you know, rich wasteful inefficient system. So as we've gotten better at using water from all sources in the sense of getting more economic value from from every gallon, we've also made ourselves more vulnerable to the loss of those gallons and that's that's an issue that's faced. Another issue is that anything that, you know, recycling water, desalinating water, these are all expensive and perfect options. Desealination requires a lot of very expensive technology. It's not economical to do it on a large scale unless you're someplace like Dubai that not only has essentially no fresh water but also has access to a huge amount of fossil fuel, desalination is economically difficult. Simply recycling water is difficult too because you as carbon river water is salty to begin with, it flows over the floor of an ancient sea and it picks up salts as it does and by the time it reaches Mexico it's it's quite salty, especially as runoff from farms and recycled water goes into the river making it ever, ever saltier. That was a problem in Mexico where the water that Mexico was receiving from its sort of grudging a lot of Colorado River water was too salty to use in agriculture and it led to this enormous crisis, political crisis, technological crisis which was solved in part by dumping huge amounts of Colorado River water into the desert in Mexico. I find myself getting an answer in question sort of getting lost at it because every answer has dozens of qualifications and breakations and you know it's one and unintended consequences and it's true of almost any issue regarding water in the West. One thing that many people said to me is that people say well let's just why don't we just throw out the Colorado River compact and it seems like let's just start from scratch but the answer to that is that you know this is no one working now from zero would create the same system. On the other hand it's for a century it's been people have been tinkering with it. They've adapted it to situations as they have risen so far and have managed to carry on and in doing so they've created this huge population of people who defend heavily on its continued existence so it's easier to propose solutions in the abstract than it is to sort of think through all the consequences. I think you've done a good job of describing the tangled complexity of water in the West. I guess as a final question let me ask you if you're pessimistic or optimistic about the future. One thing about water is you have to solve it but water problem you can only postpone it for so long people die without water. So one way or another people tend to find solutions. Just climate change we've kind of kicked down the road we're still kicking it down the road even as the crisis mounts with water you have to do something it's like you know running out of oxygen. I think a lot of the proposals that come up you know people are talking about well we'll just turn it into a market you know we'll let capitalism decide where the water goes. The sort of what seems like a paradox which is that you know water is more valuable than gold in the sense that if you don't have it you die but in a way it's so valuable that the market is an impossible way to deal with it. You wouldn't want to allocate water based on just what people were willing to pay for it. Even though there are a lot of people out there who are looking at it eyeing it you know hungrily how can I get into this water game and I think all you have to do is you look at Texas and it's electricity problems you look at NRAW and you see what happens if you take an indispensable resource and allow people to basically just treat it as something that they're just going to make money from. I'm optimistic in an assessment I think that you know something will have to happen and pessimistic in the sense just because it's just it's easy to picture people kind of going crazy in the way they need it in January sets over water you tell farmers in the west we're going to dry you up. They won't necessarily say oh all right I'll just pack it in now and you know shut down my catalog. I can see significant internal turmoil arising from almost any large scale solution that is imposed rather than arising within the group that would be affected by. David Owen thank you so much for speaking with me on American Scandal. Oh thanks for having me. That was my conversation with David Owen a journalist and author of Where the Water Goes. From Wondery this is episode four of LA Steels at Water from American Scandal. In our next series we look at a sex scandal that nearly took down a president. In 1995 Monica Lewinsky began working as an intern at the White House but when the federal government shut down Lewinsky came in close contact with President Bill Clinton and the two began an affair they tried to keep it secret but when the truth came spilling out Lewinsky would face prison time and Clinton and impeachment. If you like our show please give us a five star rating and leave a review and be sure to tell your friends I also have two other podcasts you might like American history tellers and business movers follow on Apple podcasts Amazon music or wherever you're listening right now or you can listen to new episodes early and add free by subscribing to Wondery Plus in Apple podcasts or in the Wondery app. You'll also find some links and offers from our sponsors in the episode notes supporting them helps us keep offering our shows for free. Another way you can support this show is by filling out a small survey at slash survey to tell us what topics we might come or next. You can also find us and me on Twitter follow me at Lindsay A Graham Lindsay with an A middle initially and thank you. American Scanel is hosted edited and executive produced by me Lindsay Graham for Airship audio editing by Molly Vaughn music by Lindsay Graham. Our senior producer is Gabe Riven executive producers are Stephanie Gens, Jenny Lauer Beckman and her non Lopez for Wondery.