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In 'Parched' podcast, reporter explores the decades-long drought in southwestern U.S.


Michael Elizabeth Sakas is a reporter for Colorado Public Radio, and her beat is water. Sakas reports on the importance and the scarcity of water. Her new podcast Parched looks at the drought that has plagued the Southwest U.S. for more than 20 years. It asks how we got here and what we can do about it. In May, Sakas sat down with my colleague Rachel Martin.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: So let's set the scene. When we hear that things are bad in the Colorado River Basin, what are we talking about, exactly? What does bad look like?

MICHAEL ELIZABETH SAKAS, BYLINE: Bad looks like the country's two largest reservoirs, which are Lake Mead and Lake Powell, both sitting at near-record lows. They both hit record lows within the last year.


SAKAS: And these are the water savings accounts for seven states and 30 Indigenous tribes. Really, it's these reservoirs that are ground zero for this water crisis in the Southwest because we rely on these reservoirs for hydropower. Millions of people use it for clean drinking water. And, I mean, we're talking about big cities like Las Vegas and San Diego and Phoenix and Tucson. And if you've seen pictures of these reservoirs, there's this very stark visual of how much less water there is in the Colorado River with extended drought and climate change. And so if we keep pulling more water out of Lake Powell and Lake Mead than what nature is putting in, we are threatening the ability to deliver clean drinking water to millions of people and to millions of acres of farmland.

MARTIN: So let's talk about any viable solutions, if that's even a thing. I mean, when I think about the Colorado, I think about the fact that this is this massive river that doesn't even extend into the Pacific anymore because it's just tapped dry before it gets there. The last trickles sort of evaporate in the desert.

SAKAS: Right. I mean, people want to know this, that - is there anything we can do about this water crisis? And the thing is, is that we have to do something. That's the hard truth, that we just cannot keep using water in the Southwest like we are right now. That is actually why we made this podcast, Parched. We want people to understand that, yes, there are things that we can do about this. So in the series, we explore ideas like desalination, right? Can we use the ocean as a big, giant reservoir, take out all the salt and grime out of the ocean water to make it drinking water for people? Can we do more with wastewater? Can we recycle what you flush down your toilet so that it can come back to your tap so that you can drink it? And how can farmers and ranchers change how they grow things? Because that's also one of the big realities here is that 80% of the Colorado River is going to farmland.

MARTIN: So today, in this episode, you're taking us to Las Vegas, which obviously conjures images of just over-the-top water use - right? - like huge, ornate fountains and golf courses that require tons of water to keep green. But I understand you found that, in some ways, it's actually a model of water conservation. Explain.

SAKAS: Yes. Totally understandable that that would be surprising. It's surprising to most folks - right? - because we have these images of Las Vegas, like the iconic Bellagio fountains shooting water, you know, multiple feet into the hot desert sky and these big resort towns and, you know, homes with lawns. And what they're struggling with is what a lot of towns across the Southwest are struggling with is, you know, this limited water resource. And they have - they've been kind of forced to become this blueprint for sustainability because they don't get that much Colorado River water, and a lot of people are moving there.

MARTIN: All right. Let's get to it. Here's Viva Las Vegas from the podcast Parched.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to the Big Elvis show.

PETE VALLEE: (As Elvis Presley) Well, how are you doing in Las Vegas?

SAKAS: The piano bar in this Las Vegas strip casino is packed with people from all over the world. They're singing and dancing along with an Elvis impersonator. His real name is Pete Vallee.

VALLEE: (As Elvis Presley) Ladies, come on over here. Give us your name and where you're from.

ALICIA: Alicia (ph). And I am from Lubbock, Texas.

VALLEE: (As Elvis Presley) From Lubbock.

ANNA: And I'm Anna (ph). And I'm from Lubbock, Texas.

VALLEE: (As Elvis Presley) Well, two Lubbock Texans. We love it. So let's get this show on the road, baby. Let's do it.

SAKAS: Pete's not just known as Elvis. He's Big Elvis. That's because he's a big guy. Once, he weighed over 900 pounds. He's channeling Elvis' glitzy, over-the-top Vegas era with bushy sideburns, purple-tinted glasses and a silky outfit. Pete's been performing songs like "Viva Las Vegas" on the Strip for 25 years.


VALLEE: (Singing, as Elvis Presley) Viva Las Vegas.

I was in the talent contest like Elvis in high school. Everybody screamed and yelled. And, you know, I knew right away. I was like, I got to do this.

SAKAS: So Pete's mom brought him to Nevada when he was 15. He was drawn to this desert oasis, a city awash in sparkling lights, palm trees, big fountains and pools.

VALLEE: Well, I remember as a young boy, when I moved here, water was abundant. I mean, I remember the fountains at Caesars, 24/7, going off. I mean, it was just, you know, so much water. Everything was water, but it was unlimited water, so nobody thought about it.

SAKAS: Las Vegas is in the Mojave Desert, the driest desert in the country. So this city feels like a mirage, like an optical illusion sprung up from the vast blackness of the undeveloped desert landscape surrounding it. Las Vegas as we know it shouldn't exist, and it's hard to believe that it does. This mirage, this illusion people flock to to let loose and play hard is built on Colorado River water. It wouldn't be here without it.

VALLEE: It is a desert, but we're - a lot of this world isn't all on the coast and it's not all in the perfect spot. I think this is a playground for America, you know, and it should continue to be always.

SAKAS: But in the backyard of America's playground is Lake Mead. It's the country's largest reservoir, and it's going dry. Without it, the Las Vegas fantasy turns back to dust. So the city has to figure out how to play it safe with just one thing, and that's water.


VALLEE: Vegas is excess. Everything from food to gambling to, whatever, nightlife - it's all excess. So they figure we're doing everything in excess, including wasting water. But that is just not certainly the case here, right? We're not wasting water. As a matter of fact, we're on top of it.

SAKAS: And that's why we're in Las Vegas. We're here to learn how and why this desert fantasy land wants to be the shining example of a city that can use less Colorado River water.

From CPR News, this is Parched, a podcast about people who rely on the river that shaped the West and have ideas to save it. I'm Michael Elizabeth Sakas. On this episode, I want to learn what Nevada is doing to cut down on guzzling water and why other states might follow their lead. So to start, I went on the hunt for the state's most-wanted water nemesis - thirsty grass lawns. This early in the morning, the warm rays of the rising desert sun are slowly starting to light up the sky over these houses. You might not think of suburban neighborhoods when you imagine Las Vegas, but more than 2 million people live in the county, which, despite being in the desert, has homes with emerald lawns gleaming with sprinkler water.

This home has a very nice lawn. A lot more grass in this neighborhood, but - and pretty small lawns - so just kind of like squares of grass framed by a lot of rocks and desert-y (ph) bushes and trees.

I'm driving behind a cop car or what looks like a cop car. The vehicle has a badge on the side, and instead of the common police slogan to protect and serve, it says to protect and conserve. The car is white with blue cartoon-like waves. At the top is a bar of flashing lights. We're out here patrolling for water bandits.

We are taking a left on a street called Beach Walk. Oh, wow. They just turned the patrol lights on as they entered this neighborhood.

This is the Las Vegas Valley Water District's water waste investigation unit, and they're out here early in the morning to try and catch people wet-handed. I promise I didn't make that up. That's a slogan they use.

OK, the patrol car is pulling over again. We see some sprinklers on the left. We're going to jump out of the car and take a look and see if there's any leaks, if anything is flowing out onto the sidewalk, if they're allowed to be watering right now and if any of that water flows into the road.

Cameron Donnarumma gets out of the patrol car. He's a skinny guy in his early 30s with a serious face. He's wearing a yellow fluorescent safety vest and there's a badge stitched on the front of his shirt that says water patrol. He's pulled out his phone and is filming sprinklers watering a small patch of grass. Water is running off the grass and into the street.

CAMERON DONNARUMMA: There is no contributing flow upstream. There also appears to be a broken sprinkler in the front yard of this property.

SAKAS: OK, so tell me what you were just doing there.

DONNARUMMA: As we were patrolling the area, we noticed that this irrigation was running. The water was leaving the property, heading down the street. So that is considered a violation, according to the Las Vegas Valley Water District. I also did cite that broken sprinkler, the one that's kind of still squirting out.

SAKAS: This broken sprinkler shooting water out onto the street is a satisfying find for Cameron, but a big problem for Las Vegas. Actually, it's a big problem throughout the Colorado River Basin. Watering lawns in Phoenix, Denver, Los Angeles, just to name a few, is a big way cities use their Colorado River supply. About 60% of Nevada's entire Colorado River budget goes outdoors to things like keeping trees, gardens and grass alive. So that's why Cameron has this job - a water waste investigator. He says he mostly gives out warnings, but today he's giving these homeowners a fine because they're repeat offenders. They've been caught wet-handed before. So Cameron writes out a ticket, hangs it on the garage door and puts a flag in the grass where the broken sprinkler is.

What kind of fine are they looking at?

DONNARUMMA: Most single-family homes, the first fine starts at $80. If we return and we notice that the violation has not been corrected, that $80 fine will become 160. It doubles and so on. It will keep doubling until the issue is corrected.

SAKAS: This is how big a deal it is in southern Nevada to waste water on suburban lawns. There are water waste investigators handing out tickets for broken sprinklers. That can be hundreds of dollars. With the drought, the state's share of the Colorado River is shrinking, and every drop counts.

DETROW: That was Michael Elizabeth Sakas, host of Parched from the Climate Solutions Team of CPR News and Colorado Public Radio's Audio Innovations Studio. This time next week, we'll hear how Indigenous tribes were shut out of decision-making about the Colorado River, despite the river's key role in the tribe's culture.

DARYL VIGIL: That's the level of reverence you give that stream or that river, because our ancestors go back into that, and they come from that as well. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.