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Colorado River
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The Country Life Commission

A Collaboration Between Journalists and Scholars

The Rural West Initiative aims to create a unique collaboration between journalists and scholars to investigate the forces transforming the rural west.  We are generating reports and stories ourselves and will commission more from reporters, scholars, researchers, and students across the West. Our work uses extensive data visualization as well as text, video, and still photography to tell our stories.

Latest Posts

How Far Can We Bend the Law of the River?

Photograph by John Fleck

With this post we welcome John Fleck, a reporter with 20 years of experience with the Albuquerque Journal  covering science and environmental issues. In the past decade, he has made aridity, climate change, drought and the resulting water policy questions a central topic of his newspaper work. As Albuquerque and Santa Fe, northern New Mexico's two largest metro areas, have shifted in recent years to using water imported from the Colorado River Basin, his journalism has emphasized the relationship between New Mexico's water and broader regional waterscience, politics and policy questions. He is the author of "A Tree Rings' Tale," a book for young people about climate, science, water and the West, and is working on "Moving Water", a book about Colorado River water policy in the 21st century.

– John McChesney, Rural West Program Director

By John Fleck

The Law of the River – the stack of compacts, statutes, court decisions and operating rules governing the division of the Colorado River’s precious water – once had a sacred aura. “It was tantamount to having been written on tablets,” in the worlds of Las Vegas water manager Pat Mulroy.

No more. If we learned anything at the University of Colorado’s Navigating the Future of the Colorado River Basin conference June 8 - 10, it was that:

Last modified Mon, 27 Jun, 2011 at 9:02

Rural Health Care Advocates Welcome New White House Rural Council

President Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack tour a Missouri farm, in April 2010.
(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

By Robin Pam

Teddy Roosevelt’s Country Life Commission released its report on the state of rural America in 1909, highlighting “deficiencies” in rural life that led to people leaving the country for the city. One hundred and two years later, the Obama administration announced the formation of a new White House Rural Council, on June 9.

When Roosevelt announced his Commission, it was ridiculed as a transparent bid for votes, and rural papers across the country poked fun at the president as “Teddy the Meddler.” There was also some mockery of President Obama’s council as well: But not everyone was in a mocking mood.

The National Rural Health Association applauded the announcement, saying in a blog post that it was “pleased the White House is focused on improving the lives of the 62 million Americans who call rural home.” When the Country Life Commission conducted its survey, more than 40 percent of Americans lived in rural areas.

Last modified Thu, 23 Jun, 2011 at 15:04

House Threatens Funding for Rural Health Training

Rural Health Clinic by Flickr user Jeua
Photo by Flickr user Jeua

With this blog post, we introduce Robin Pam. She is the co-author of our essay on rural health care and will be appearing from time to time with posts on the on-going problems in western rural health care. She is the director of operations at a health data start up in the San Francisco area. She has worked in health policy on a congressional committee, online communications at a think tank, a political campaign in Montana, and historic architecture at Yosemite National Park. Her writing has been published by the Center for American Progress and High Country News. Robin holds a degree in American Studies from Stanford, and is a native of the West.


– John McChesney

By Robin Pam

The House voted last week to eliminate more than $230 million in funding to graduate medical education residency training for primary care providers in community health clinics. The Affordable Care Act, 2009’s landmark health care reform law, mandated the funds for a five-year period, from 2011-2015. The bill under consideration, H.R. 1216, would eliminate the program’s automatic funding and shift the money into an appropriation subject to annual renewal in Congress.

Last modified Thu, 23 Jun, 2011 at 15:02

Colorado River Conference at the University of Colorado June 8-10

I'm headed for the conference which is called "Navigating the Future of the Colorado River Basin." It's put together by the Natural Resources Law Center at the the law school. Pat Mulroy, whose interview we just posted, will be the keynote speaker, so here's a chance to get a preview. Doug Kenney, Director of Center's Western Water Policy Program, whose speech is also posted here, will be a key figure in the conference. The conference promises to be intense and, I'm sure, will stir up a little controversy. One of my journalistic colleagues, John Fleck of the Albuquerque Journal, will be commenting on a panel titled "Rethinking the Current Path."  In the future, we'll be posting interviews with some of the participants.  

Last modified Tue, 5 Jul, 2011 at 14:25

Nevada Water Maven: “I Would Not Declare the Drought Over on the Colorado River”

By John McChesney, Director of the Rural West Initiative

Pat MulroyPat Mulroy heads up the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which supplies water to the Las Vegas Valley. Las Vegas gets 90 percent of its water from the Colorado River. Nevertheless, Mulroy supervises one of the smallest straws sucking water from the Colorado. By way of comparison, Nevada is allocated 300,000 acre feet of water from the Colorado, while California can suck up 4.4 MILLION acre feet. But don’t let appearances fool you. Mulroy is one of the strongest voices for seven-state, basin-wide agreements on how the precious flow of the Colorado should be apportioned, especially in times of shortage.  Her grasp of the demands on the river, from its headwaters to its trickle into the Sea of Cortez, is formidable. Witness the sweep of this description, where she ties the Colorado system into the Bay-Delta system of California. For those of you who are not water wonks, Metropolitan refers to the Metropolitan Water District, which serves 26 cities and water agencies in southern California.

We recently interviewed Mulroy about the 11 year drought on the Colorado, about whether the huge snowpack this year means the crisis is over, and about what should be done going forward. You can read the interview here, but I think it’s more interesting to listen to her, so we are providing audio as well. First, though, a note about Lake Mead water levels, since they come up over and over again in this discussion. Mead is full at 1229 feet, it has averaged 1173 feet, its drought level is 1125, and its critical shortage level is 1025. 

Interview with Pat Mulroy, Southern Nevada Water Authority
Duration: 20 minutes (download as podcast)

Read on for transcript and more audio clips » 

Last modified Mon, 4 Jul, 2011 at 8:00

Despite Ozone Spikes, More Drilling Proposed in Wyoming Community

Deer and antelope mingle in the Pinedale Anticline natural gas field. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Editor's Note

I visited Sublette County Wyoming last week to begin gathering material for our series on the energy boom in the rural West. We are putting together audio and video documentaries that tell the story of this county’s love-hate relationship with its natural gas fields.

A huge problem facing the county is the ozone generated by development of the fields. To explore this issue we offer the following article by Dustin Bleizeffer, editor in chief of Wyofile, an excellent online news service covering Wyoming. Bleizeffer has 12 years of covering energy in Wyoming under his belt, and we’ll periodically offer his pieces here.

– John McChesney, Director, Rural West Initiative

By Dustin Bleizeffer, WyoFile

PINEDALE, WY. — State, federal and company officials admit they don’t fully understand how to restore air quality and avoid further exceedences of federal Clean Air Act standards in the once-pristine airshed of the Upper Green River Basin.

Yet the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has already begun analyzing proposals for major natural gas field expansions that will add up to 4,338 new wells in the area.

Last modified Wed, 1 Jun, 2011 at 9:00

Rethinking the Colorado River: A Provocative Speech

As part of our Rural West Initiative, we are examining the crisis on the Colorado River, with a close eye on its impact on rural communities, and the past, present, and future of agriculture in the Colorado River Basin.

We join the conversation on the Colorado River crisis by posting a provocative speech given by Doug Kenney at the December, 2010 meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association (CRWUA) in Las Vegas. He recently authored a report for the Western Water Policy Program entitled, Rethinking the Future of the Colorado River. He called his speech at CRWUA a "Reader’s Digest" version of that report.

Last modified Tue, 5 Jul, 2011 at 6:09

Tax Revenue, not Employment, Is Lasting Benefit of Energy Extraction in the West, Says a New Report

A new report by Headwaters Economics, a research organization based in Bozeman Montana, says the longest lasting economic benefit from oil, gas, and coal extraction comes from taxes, not from jobs. Jobs in the energy sector are often filled by transients who leave after a field is developed and goes into the production stage, but tax revenues continue to accrue during production. The report generated instant controversy with its recommendation that severance taxes on energy production be increased and that the monies collected be distributed more equitably to local governments to mitigate impacts of energy development on public infrastructure and the environment. The report also asserts that increasing taxes would not deter exploration and drilling. “A growing body of research indicates that taxes have little or no effect on where and when industry chooses to drill for oil and gas,” the report says.

Last modified Tue, 5 Jul, 2011 at 5:55

“The Sky is Not Falling…Yet,” Concludes a New Study of Colorado River Problems


The Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Policy at the University of Montana has just issued its report, “Thinking Like a River Basin.” The report was commissioned by Carpe Diem West, a group dedicated to studying climate change and water in the West.

The report is based on interviews with 29 Colorado River experts and stakeholders who were promised anonymity in exchange for their views. The need for anonymity suggests the sensitivity of the subject; apparently, real candor about hot button river issues can only be obtained by insulating the interviewees from their respective constituencies.

The report is an excellent primer on the issues confronting the 30 million people using Colorado River water amidst the uncertainties created by climate change and growing populations.

Last modified Tue, 5 Jul, 2011 at 5:56

Health Care in the Rural West: Persistent Problems, Glimmers of Hope

Giving a typhoid innoculation at a school in rural San Augustine County, Texas, 1943. (Photo: John Vachon via Library of Congress)

In spite of a broad increase in the number of doctors per capita in the United States and in the American West over the past century, many rural areas in the West have seen little or no increase. This is a cause for grave concern. The fact that much of the rural West has seen little improvement in this basic measure of health care access is surprising, and it underscores the persistent remoteness of vast stretches of the rural West. But it also underscores the importance of improving physician access in the rural West. And the state of Utah shows a way forward. Postdoctoral scholar Michael De Alessi and research assistant Robin Pam examine the trends. Explore the data yourself through interactive maps embedded in his essay.

Read More »

Last modified Tue, 5 Jul, 2011 at 6:18