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You’ve been overwhelmed with headlines all week – what's worth a closer look? One Thing takes you into the story and helps you make sense of the news everyone's been talking about. Each Sunday, host David Rind interviews one of CNN’s world-class reporters to tell us what they've found – and why it matters. From the team behind CNN 5 Things.

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On the Front Lines of the Western Water Wars
CNN One Thing
Jan 22, 2023

Despite recent rainstorms in California, the decades-long megadrought in the West shows no signs of easing. As a result, some states have been forced to pull back on the water they use from the Colorado River. In this episode, we hear the story of one Arizona community forced to take legal action against the city of Scottsdale after being cut off from its water supply – and why it could serve as a warning to the rest of the country as the climate crisis continues.

Guest: Lucy Kafanov, CNN Correspondent

Episode Transcript
David Rind
You've probably heard the joke about how Californians just can't handle the rain, how even a little drizzle is enough to paralyze the roads. And as someone who lives on the East Coast, I usually have a lot of time for that gentle teasing. But I want to be clear. The rain California has received over the past few weeks is no laughing matter.
Rachel Oliveira
We had a canoe strapped up that we thought if we needed to, we could canoe out. But it was moving too fast.
Storms hit us like a water balloon exploding and just drop water down through our rivers and creeks.
David Rind
A series of storms fueled by back to back atmospheric rivers, caused widespread flooding and mudslides, washing out roads and forcing evacuations. At least 20 people were killed.
We have seen impressive rainfall totals. So far from December 26 through January 10th we have received over half a year's worth of rain, some areas well above that.
David Rind
These storms showed the destructive power water can have. But of course, it's crucial for so many things, including farming, bathing and, of course, drinking. And in other Western states, with each passing year, there's less and less of it to go around. We've talked on the show about how a decades long megadrought has forced cutbacks along the Colorado River, leading some local governments to make tough decisions about where the water should go. My guest this week is CNN correspondent Lucy Kafanov. She has the story of one Arizona community cut off from its water supply and why more communities like it could be next as the climate crisis continues. From CNN. This is One Thing I'm David Rind.
David Rind
First of all, Lucy, I have to ask. Some parts of California got like a month's worth of rain in just a few days over the past couple of weeks. So does that mean that this decades long Western megadrought that we've heard about doesn't mean it's over?
Lucy Kafanov
Yeah, it's totally over. There's really no point to this podcast. I'm totally kidding. Of course, I wish it was that simple. The problem in California is that it's too much water all at once and not enough water altogether. And California might be looking pretty drenched right now. But as you know, for the past two decades, it's been suffering through this intense megadrought of the kind that hasn't really been seen in more than a thousand years. It's getting hotter and drier. Snowpack is melting earlier and there's less of it. And that's unfortunately true for most of the Southwest. We're talking California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado, where I am. What these states share in common is their reliance on the Colorado River. So Colorado River, massive river runs some 1400 miles from its headwaters in the Rockies to its delta in northern Mexico. Its water in some of our fastest growing cities and it's going dry.
Bianna Golodryga
More skeletal remains have been found at the bottom of Lake Mead. Now, this is because the water has dropped so low.
Lucy Kafanov
And it's gotten so bad that the federal government, for the first time ever last year declared something called a tier two shortage, which basically triggered these mandatory cuts to how much water southwestern states can use.
Jake Tapper
Nevada, Arizona and even the country of Mexico needing to cut back the most.
Lucy Kafanov
Arizona has had to make one of the largest cuts 21% of its yearly allotment of river water. And so, you know, living out west myself here in Denver, I've been hearing about this megadrought doomsday warnings for for years. But I was really interested in sort of checking out communities who were already impacted, for whom this wasn't some theoretical threat, but a real life here and now crisis. And so we went to Arizona to see firsthand what was unfolding on the ground.
David Rind
Right. So what did you find down there?
Lucy Kafanov
Right. So one of the first things or one of the main things that interested me about places like Arizona is that it doesn't really look or feel like you're in the midst of the worst drought in 1200 years. You know, you take an airplane to Phenix or Tucson, and so you're flying over these lush, green, enormous golf courses in the middle of the parched desert. If you're there on a hot summer afternoon and you go to a café or a bar or restaurant, they often have these outdoor patios that are missing off patrons with water. And even more of obvious is this massive construction boom. You know, we went to Maricopa County, which at least last year was literally the fastest growing in the nation. Developers have been buying up land building like crazy, and that's been setting up these conflicts, pitting communities against one another. Farmers versus cities. The reality is there's not enough water to go around. And while things might be slow to change in a big cities, there are some communities like one that we visited specifically where there literally isn't any water right now.
David Rind
All right. So how do those kind of standoffs, those conversations, how are they playing out in real life?
Lucy Kafanov
So let's start with the Rio Verde foothills.
Lucy Kafanov in field
I mean, it is a majestic place.
Karan Nabity
It is. It is. We absolutely love it here.
Lucy Kafanov
That's one of the communities that we spend time. And it's a very unique place. It's a pretty wealthy community on the outskirts of Scottsdale. A lot of ranches and big homes. They share the same zip code. But Foothills residents are not Scottsdale residents. Rio Verde foothills is outside city limits. It's something called unincorporated, which basically means that homeowners don't pay city taxes. It also means they don't get city services like water, which, you know, back in the day used to be a plus, less government interference. It's a lot of folks who kind of like to keep their lives private and like less taxes.
David Rind
We'll make our own arrangements.
Lucy Kafanov
Yeah, exactly. Which, again, was totally fine until the wells began to dry up.
Lucy Kafanov in field
And so what's changed recently that maybe made living here a little bit more difficult?
Karan Nabity
Water, water, water, water.
Lucy Kafanov
A lot of people have been relying on hauled water, which up until January 1st was purchased from Scottsdale, trucked up a dusty road to the community and dumped in residents storage tanks. But when drought conditions forced the Federal Government to declare a shortage in the Colorado River, reducing again how much water Arizona and other states can use. Scottsdale had to come up with an emergency plan, right? So it decided to cut off water deliveries and sales to outside communities so it could meet its own residents needs.
Lucy Kafanov in field
So this is your well?
Karan Nabity
Yep. So this is a tank if I mean maintenance. But I have a water truck pull up here and it takes a hose, takes this cap off, fills up my water tank Under here is a 5000 gallon water tank.
Lucy Kafanov
We spend time with this lovely woman named Karan Nabity, who's lived in the Rio Verde foothills for years. Her family's there. She loves her home, loves her life there. But she is one of the many residents who relies on hauled water. She doesn't have any working wells on her property. And the cost of this is now unsustainable.
Karan Nabity
But if that person uses 9000 gallons now, it's $900 more for your water. That's thousands of dollars in the course of the year. It's ridiculous.
Lucy Kafanov
She and a group of other neighbors have banded together and have been pushing for years now because they actually saw this problem looming in the distance to form their own water district that would allow the community to buy water from elsewhere in the state and import what they need. That plan got unanimously voted down and another group prefers enlisting a Canadian private utility company called Epcor to supply the community, as it does with neighboring areas.
David Rind
Canadian. We're talking about Arizona here.
Lucy Kafanov
Yeah, I mean, yeah, you got a foreign private utility company.
Karan Nabity
We've worked on it for five years now and we still don't have a solution. And it's frustrating. It's infuriating.
Lucy Kafanov
And so this month, another group of residents actually banded together to sue Scottsdale. Right. They were trying to force the city to keep selling them this water. They claim Scottsdale is leaving the Rio Verde community high and dry. Scottsdale, which remember, is also getting its water from the dwindling Colorado River, says, no, no, no. Look, we are all in the midst of a drought. There's not enough to go around. The mayor issuing this lovely, colorful quote saying there's no Santa Clause. The Megadrought tells us all water is not a compassion game.
It's dire. It's it's now we need water now. We can't wait a week. We can't wait really a day. This shouldn't have happened.
I just cannot believe that a group of people would look at their neighbors and say, We're going to slowly kill off your community.
Lucy Kafanov
Then as a result, folks who don't have working wells are pretty much screwed. You know, they're still getting water trucked in, but it's coming from further away, which means it costs more. People are harvesting what little rainwater there is to flush their toilets. They're skipping showers. They're doing laundry at friend's houses. One woman told me to take showers at the gym. So it's impacting life there pretty significantly.
John Hornewer
This is a this is a shot over the mouth. This one maybe doesn't affect you today. Maybe you don't you're not feeling it today, but you will.
Lucy Kafanov
But that's not it. Other industries in Arizona are being forced to adapt as well.
David Rind
So, Lucy, before the break, you mentioned these mandated water cutbacks are impacting multiple industries in the West, in Arizona. What's another example?
Lucy Kafanov
Well, one of the biggest examples of one of the hardest hit are Arizona's farmers. Farming accounts for roughly 72% of Arizona's water use. That goes towards agriculture. And we traveled to a place called Pinal County, which is located halfway between Phenix and Tucson, thanks to the Colorado River. Pinal County is or at least was one of the most productive farming regions of the United States, which is kind of crazy because it literally is in the middle of the desert. You know, it's a big producer of crops like alfalfa, corn for cattle feed and cotton. These farmers have had massive, massive water cuts as a result of the cutbacks that have been imposed on Arizona.
Lucy Kafanov in field
And how many acres did you farm before the water cuts?
Will Thealander
So we managed about 7000 acres.
Lucy Kafanov
We met this guy, a fourth generation farmer, Will Thelander.
Will Thelander
And now we're growing about 3000.
Lucy Kafanov in field
Wow. So half of your land?
Will Thelander
We followed about half the ground. Wow.
Lucy Kafanov in field
So what are we looking at?
Will Thelander
So we're looking at a canal that used to feed about half the Colorado River water. But now it's all ground pumps.
Lucy Kafanov
And in terms of how the drought is impacting the farm areas, I mean, you can see this with your own eyes. Well, Philander showed us these narrow canals that basically zigzag along this desert that tap into the Colorado River and its various reservoirs. And while some of those were working, a lot of those have been shut off and completely dry.
Will Thelander
Yeah, it feeds our canal system so we can keep farming, but not as much land as we used to.
Lucy Kafanov
He has had to stop growing crops like cotton, which is especially water intensive and has tried to focus on crops that are less demanding. And of course he's one of the lucky ones. He's still in business. A lot of his neighbors are not.
David Rind
What is he growing now?
Lucy Kafanov in field
Okay, so what is this that we're looking at?
Lucy Kafanov in field
We're looking at a plant called Guayule.
Lucy Kafanov
He's actually trying a rather innovative approach. He has partnered up with a tire making company to test out a crop called Guayule.
Will Thelander
The cool thing about it is uses half as much water. Plus, it can lead to a local supply of rubber for the U.S..
Lucy Kafanov
Is it going to be enough to save his farm? It's not clear. And he's concerned that unless we take drastic steps to to change the way we operate in the South-West, farming might not be around in Arizona.
Will Thelander
What happens to our food supply? Where are we going to get our food? You can't just switch all the corn farms in the Midwest to start growing asparagus. It doesn't work like that.
Lucy Kafanov
And that's also going to be felt not just by people in the Southwest, but folks who go to supermarkets in New York and elsewhere in the country, because so many of the crops and the winter greens come from places like Arizona.
David Rind
Right. And you can't eat the tire plant, I guess. But so, like, these are all creative solutions, people doing their best to adapt. But let's be honest here. This is one farmer, one unincorporated community. This is a huge multistate problem like you outlined. So what is the local farmer who can't afford to dig for a new well, or the town who can't afford to shell out money to get water trucked in from a Canadian water company? What do they do? I'm not saying this will be like "Mad Max Fury Road" any time soon, but how does this not become a survival of the fittest? Most money wins kind of situation. If the climate crisis and the situation on the Colorado River continues like this.
Lucy Kafanov
I mean, unfortunately, at this stage where we're at right now, it does seem like a most money wins kind of situation. And that's because, you know, in some areas, politicians haven't necessarily taken this as seriously as they should. You know, there are efforts to come to some sort of resolution. You've had negotiations between various states who rely on the Colorado River, on voluntary water cuts, but those have been pretty tense. Talks at this stage have sort of stalled because folks couldn't really agree on how much water each state should sacrifice and how much money Farmers and Tribal nations, which are also impacted by all of this and cities should be paid to cut their water use. Even if Rio Verde figures out a way of getting water to that small community, that's going to be a Band-Aid to the bigger problem, which is that we as a society and as a nation can't continue going on the way we have been at a time when the resources that we've been relying on are simply not there.
David Rind
Well, Lucy, thanks so much for the reporting. Really appreciate it.
Lucy Kafanov
Thank you so much, David.
David Rind
One Thing is a production of CNN Audio. This episode was produced by Paola Ortiz and me. David Rind. Matt Dempsey is our production manager. Faiz Jamil is our senior producer. Greg Peppers is our supervising producer. And Abbie Fentress-Swanson is the executive producer of CNN Audio. Thanks for listening. We'll be back next Sunday. Talk to you then.