Carpe Diem West 10 year Anniversary Report

Climate Chaos & Local Resilience


In the American West, water is lifeblood and connector. It quenches our thirst and moistens the land that grows the food we eat. It powers our cities. It nurtures thousands of living creatures and nourishes the senses of thousands more who kayak on, bathe in, and travel along the edges of rivers, streams, and reservoirs, or hike the forests that surround them.

I’ve always thought of western bodies of water as the ultimate givers. Because they assume we care. Because they assume we won’t discriminate over who has access to them. Because they assume we won’t fight over them, deplete them. On reporting trips to the Colorado River in Yuma, Arizona, I was struck by the competing sides of this generosity. This mighty river, which traverses seven states and an international boundary, is, on one hand, a marvelous playground and on the other, an alarm bell for a planet clamoring for help.

A warming climate is already straining our water supply. Development, politics and poorly regulated use are only adding to the pressure.

To whom does water belong, after all?

Too often, communities have been pushed out, their voices silences and their needs ignored. But there is action, and there is change, and there are people and organizations joining forces to make sure their water—our water—is equitably distributed and preserved for future generations.

Early this year in Yuma, I spent time in Hispanic Evangelical churches, hearing pastors preach a gospel of salvation for the struggling Colorado—caring for the river, they said, is caring for God’s creation. This message underlining the link between environmental stewardship and Christian faith has been amplified through documentaries, in English and Spanish, produced and promoted by the nonprofits American Rivers and Hispanic Access Foundation, which has also been organizing pastors across the Southwest around the cause.

There are other examples, all of them grounded on the same principles of equity and collaboration.

Seattle Public Utilities has been training its employees, adjusting some of its policies and making connections to ensure income, race, ethnicity and country of origin bear no influence in the quality of the service it provides. In Missoula, Montana, residents endorsed a costly, long, and successful fight to wrestle control of the city’s water supply from the hands of a private equity firm. In Eugene, Oregon, farmers and local, state, and federal agencies are working together to protect riparian forests from degradation and threats, such as wildfires, which have been fueled by the increasing heat and dryness in the West.

The efforts know no borders: Six U.S. and Mexican nongovernmental organizations have banded together to bring water back to the Colorado River Delta, in Mexico.

This report commemorating the tenth anniversary of Carpe Diem West, titled “Climate Chaos and Local Resilience,” offers a deeper look into each of these stories. But that is not all it does. It shows the power of teamwork.

That gives me hope for the future. I hope it does the same to you.

Fernanda Santos

Fernanda Santos is an award-winning journalist and author who, for five years, wrote about the Southwest for The New York Times. She is the Southwest Borderlands Initiative Professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. Santos has reported extensively on border and immigration issues as well as wildfires in the West. Her recent book, “The Fire Line: The Story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots,” covered the deadliest wildfire in Arizona history and won the Western Writers of America 2017 Spur Award for Best First Nonfiction Book.

Banner Photo Credit: Amy S. Martin Photography

The Stories

  • Good Stewards: An innovative new partnership supports Latino advocates for the Colorado
  • The Good Neighbor: Seattle Public Utilities puts social justice and equity goals into action
  • $84 Million and Worth Every Penny: Missoulians take control of their water
  • Protecting the Best: Farmers and Utility work together for clean water
  • Raise the River: Bringing hope back to the Colorado River Delta
  • Thinking Big, Thinking Ahead, Acting Now: Albuquerque invests in watershed restoration
  • From Decades of Discord to a Mountain Accord: Collaboration in the Central Wasatch
Photo Credit: Amy S. Martin Photography

Good Stewards

An innovative new partnership supports Latino advocates for the Colorado

Photo Credits: Amy S. Martin Photography

"We are called by our history and faith to be good stewards of this magnificent river, which has carved the Grand Canyon and nourished our ancestors for countless generations.”

– HAF (Hispanic Access Foundation) President and CEO, Maite Arce, and Al Martinez, HECHO (Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors)

Latino communities in the Colorado River basin have a deep connection to the great river, lifeblood of the American Southwest. Yet historically, negotiations about where its water goes, and who benefits, have been secretive, closed-door, and highly exclusive. The voices of those most affected by water management decisions have not been heard within the corridors of power.

Two recent films are helping Latino leaders tell a story that galvanizes their communities to play a stronger role in advocating for the Colorado.

In 2015, a screening of I Am Red, a film about the Colorado River, sparked a vibrant new partnership that catalyzed Latino engagement with water issues across the West. The Hispanic Access Foundation (HAF) and American Rivers forged an alliance, and HAF translated I Am Red into Spanish.

Soy Rojo, the first result of that alliance, was a hit with Latino environmental audiences, especially the evangelical pastors that HAF works with across the basin. More than 35 churches from Denver to Los Angeles screened the film, along with two major Spanish-language TV networks, Telemundo and Univision, which ran PSA screenings.

This year, American Rivers and HAF followed their success with a new film, Leche y Miel (Milk & Honey), after the Lower Colorado River gained the dubious honor of being listed as America's Most Endangered River for 2017. Profiling Latinos in Yuma, AZ, the film showcases the importance of the river to Latino families’ faith, livelihood and future.

Connecting the Colorado to deep Latino faith traditions makes sense for HAF, which also spearheads the Latino pastors network, Por La Creacion. As The New York Times reported earlier this year, many of the pastors in that network embrace environmental stewardship as a moral responsibility, and share that perspective with their congregations. “We want to elevate those voices and increase the Latino community’s involvement in decision-making,” says HAF’s Robert Fanger.

With the release of Leche y Miel, HAF plans a social and broadcast media campaign for faith communities around the basin. It starts in Arizona, where inter-state negotiations are in progress around a drought declaration plan based on new conservation measures.

At the same time, HAF has reinvigorated Nuestro Rio, a program designed to enlist Latino elected officials as advocates for the Colorado and the communities that depend on it. In this way, HAF is connecting grassroots and grasstops constituencies to bring a full spectrum of voices to conversations about the river’s future.

This push to bring Latino voices into the fraught negotiations over the future of the Colorado is critically important for the river and everyone who depends on it. The partnership between HAF and American Rivers is a great example of how to empower and invigorate grassroots communities, so they can weigh in on the big decisions to be made in the coming years about water security in the West.

Photo Credit: Amy S. Martin Photography

The Good Neighbor

Seattle Public Utilities puts social justice and equity goals into action

“We are not just a service provider, but a good neighbor and a member of the community.”

– Mami Hara, CEO and General Manager, Seattle Public Utilities

The demographics of most western cities are changing rapidly, and water utilities are asking new and important questions about the communities they serve. “Often, lower income, racially diverse communities do not have the same access to resources and political capital as well-to-do neighborhoods,” says Michael Davis, director of the Environmental and Justice Division at Seattle Public Utilities.

As a result, the utility is asking questions, such as these:

Do we know our community’s needs and priorities? Do we have a water quality or delivery issue that has a differential impact on people of color or low-income members of the community? Does our decision-making body reflect our community’s demographics?

A few years ago, Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) set out to answer some of these questions. Today, it leads the field in this important area of equity inquiry. The goal? To ensure that all residents receive the same quality of service, regardless of race or income.

SPU provides water, sewer and garbage to over 1.2 million people, so changing the utility’s attitudes and habits toward race and social justice is no small task. SPU is accomplishing its objective by embracing a few different tactics:

  • Conducting mandatory trainings on race and other key equity topics for over 1,300 of its employees
  • Identifying and addressing racial inequities in the utility’s policies, programs, and services
  • Embedding racial and social justice, and service equity policies, into planning and practices across the utility
  • Developing partnerships with community-based organizations to engage customers more effectively, particularly people of color, immigrants, and refugees

The utility has adopted a Service Equity Action Plan that calls for embedding equity into all of its work, launching departmental equity teams to support this commitment. Those teams are led by “Branch Equity Deputies,” who serve three-year terms, and are charged with making sure their department achieves service and racial equity goals.

The program at SPU offers a model for utilities across the West to understand and shift inequitable trajectories or outcomes in service provision. As the climate changes and clean water becomes increasingly valuable to everyone, SPU’s use of an “equity lens” to explore and meet community needs is a mark of visionary leadership.

Photo Credit: Seattle Public Utilities

Photo Credit: Clark Fork Coalition

$84 Million and Worth Every Penny

Missoulians take control of their water

"Public acquisition of the water is a really big deal. It brings these priceless water assets under public ownership and puts them out of reach of private investors that view water as the next hot investment. Blue gold.”

– Karen Knudsen, Executive Director, Clark Fork Coalition

How much is it worth to put community water rights under public ownership? For the city of Missoula, Montana, it cost $84 million and several years of expensive court proceedings.

When a global equity firm took over Missoula’s water system in 2011, city leaders became concerned. “Water is our commons, and we woke up to that fact when a private company began running our water system,” says Karen Knudsen, executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition and one of the key players in the purchase.

Missoulians as a whole understand the value of their water system, which includes a prolific Ice Age aquifer and the feeder streams that recharge it. Rattlesnake Creek alone drains eight wilderness lakes, and serves as the city’s emergency backup water supply.

City leadership reflects those public values. Mayor John Engen “saw the opening, understood the importance, and recognized the need,” says Knudsen. Together with a broad base of partners and other elected officials, Engen moved forward with an audacious vision: putting the Missoula water supply into the hands of the people who live there—for the foreseeable future.

Photo Credits: Clark Fork Coalition

It was a tough fight, resulting in a condemnation proceeding that took years and cost upwards of $2.7 million, according to the Missoulian. Knudsen recommends that other communities thinking about buying back their water systems from private investors try “vigorous conversation and negotiation” first. “See if you can get to some collaborative agreement,” she says. “Clarify the expectations. Put it in writing. Assume a good outcome. But if it starts to fade from reach, prepare to dig deeper into the toolbox and do whatever it takes.”

Success, however, is sweet. In June 2015, District Judge Karen Townsend granted the city’s “’right to acquire the water system by exercising its power of eminent domain,” according to the Missoulian.

Once the city hits its stride with the water utility, Knudsen is excited about getting “a bigger ecological bang out of the system.” Years of deferred maintenance have led to a 40% leak rate in the utility’s network of pipes, and she anticipates an opportunity to implement metering, to encourage more efficient water use. “Then there’s the need to fill in the service gaps around our community, where people have had to rely on unmonitored, unregulated individual wells for their drinking water,” she says.

Other ecological gains include: increasing in-stream flows and wild trout habitat; removing outdated dams; and giving some TLC to under-maintained dams upstream that are stockpiling sediment, so that a big rain event doesn’t cause a catastrophic flush.

“There’s no shortage of work to do to help our community do right by our shared water resources, and to protect the incredible ecological assets that have come under the city’s care,” she says.

Is it all worth it? Knudsen has no reservations. “Water is precious. Communities should control their own water destiny,” she says.

Photo Credit: Jamie Hooper

Protecting the Best

Farmers and utility work together for clean water

“We recognize and appreciate that agriculture is critically important in the McKenzie Watershed, so we started working with farmers on what they needed.”

 Karl Morgenstern, Environmental Management Supervisor, Eugene Water & Electric Board, and co-founder of Pure Water Partners

Some of the best solutions grow organically at the local level, as a non-regulatory response to climate change and extreme weather events. When you threaten people’s lifestyles, they respond negatively—but show them how they can work together to benefit the values they hold dear, and it’s incredible what you can accomplish.

Before Eugene Water & Electric Board (EWEB) started the pilot program that became Pure Water Partners (PWP), common assumptions held that landowner resistance was the main problem in the McKenzie Watershed. Then, along came EWEB environmental management supervisor Karl Morgenstern, with a strikingly pragmatic approach. “Let’s build a program that actually works—not one we hope works,” he said.

Morgenstern put together a partnership between EWEB, the watershed’s agricultural interests, the US Forest Service, local universities and agencies, and other utilities. Together, they conducted a successful pilot program, and PWP was born.

Photo Credit: Nancy Toth / Eugene Water & Electric Board

The program is designed to protect healthy riparian forests and restore degraded areas by aligning funding from multiple sources. It rewards restoration projects and long-term stewardship of healthy riparian areas with financial incentives to landowners, who receive payments, technical assistance, or other incentives to participate in PWP.

Those landowners, in turn, help the downstream utility, EWEB, avoid or reduce water treatment costs arising from increased sediments, chemicals, and bacteria associated with the removal of streamside vegetation, erosion, the use of pesticides and fertilizers, and septic contamination. Because the McKenzie Watershed is the sole source of drinking water for the 200,000 plus residents in the greater Eugene area, that savings can add up significantly.

Together, everyone involved in Pure Water Partners is securing a valuable drinking water resource for current and future generations. They demonstrate every day that it’s cheaper to invest in protecting a healthy watershed now, than to restore a degraded system later. And they prove that landowners can be great partners in this watershed work.

Photo Credit: Peter McBride

Raise the River

Bringing hope back to the Colorado River Delta

"The US and Mexico have now doubled down on their efforts to forestall a shortage declaration on the Colorado River in response to ongoing drought. Most notable for conservationists is the agreement’s commitment to restoring the Colorado River Delta.”

 John Shepard, Senior Director of Programs, Sonoran Institute

In the spring of 2014, the Colorado River reached the sea for the first time in 16 years, during a controlled “pulse flow” mimicking the periodic floods that inundated the Colorado River Delta for eons. Those floods were essential to the health of the river corridor, so it was an inspiring moment for the communities and NGOs who had worked for decades to bring life back to the Delta.

The pulse flow was the result of an extensive binational river restoration initiative in the Delta, underscoring the importance of the river for the millions who depend on it for drinking, farming, and spiritual purposes. It was also a testament to the unique and scrappy partnership known as Raise the River: Six U.S. and Mexican non-governmental organizations, committed to restoring the Delta.

Raise the River partners worked together for nearly two decades, conducting scientific studies, securing funds to bring small amounts of water to the Delta, and involving local communities in pilot restoration projects. Finally, a historic bi-national agreement, Minute 319, was signed in November 2012, making the pulse flow possible. After that, restoration efforts kicked into high gear.

Photo Credits: Top: The Nature Conservancy Left: Bill Hatcher/Sonoran Institute Right: The Nature Conservancy

Since the signing of Minute 319, Raise the River has shown how a little water, the removal of invasive plants, and the reintroduction of native trees and vegetation can bring the Delta back to life. Already, more than 1,000 acres along the main channel have been restored and these efforts have now expanded to tributaries, wetlands, and the upper Delta estuary.

That proof of concept compelled U.S. and Mexican decision-makers to sign another agreement, Minute 323, on September 27th of this year. For the first time, this innovative new policy framework allows the U.S. and Mexico to share water surpluses in times of plenty, and reductions in times of drought. It also provides incentives for leaving water in storage, and facilitates conservation through joint investments by water users in both countries. The new agreement commits both countries to additional funding and water for Delta restoration over the agreement’s nine-year term.

Jennifer Pitt, of Raise the River and the National Audubon Society, says Minute 323 “shows the best of what collaboration can do, improving the reliability of the Colorado River water supply for everyone who uses it.”

“The US and Mexico have now doubled down on their efforts to forestall a shortage declaration on the Colorado River in response to ongoing drought,” says John Shepard of the Sonoran Institute. “Most notable for conservationists is the agreement’s commitment to restoring the Colorado River Delta. Raise the River’s efforts to buy and lease water from willing farmers in the Mexicali Valley, and deliver it to restoration sites, is a great example of partnership in action.”

Today, Raise the River’s goal is to let just a little more water move through the river—less than 1% of its annual flow. Accomplishing that goal will create a pathway to restoring thousands of acres of forest and marsh along a 70-mile stretch of river. It’s also likely to generate rural economic activities and job opportunities for local people, including river restoration, tourism, recreational hunting, and sport and commercial fisheries.

As Raise the River leaders like to say, “If we can fix the Delta, we can demonstrate that no place is beyond hope.”

Photo Credit: Bill Hatcher / Sonoran Institute

Thinking Big, Thinking Ahead, Acting Now

Albuquerque invests in watershed restoration

"Nobody wants to raise rates but if the ratepayers understand what the challenges are, and what the new revenue is being used for, they will support it.”

– Maggie Hart Stebbins, Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Authority Board Member

Western water utilities know all too well the now-famous phrase, “stationarity is dead.” Planning for water security in the American West in the time of climate change requires getting ready for low probability, high-risk impact events.

But can that understanding spur smart actions today? Will it lead to investment in the headwater forests that are the source of most of our water supply?

In New Mexico, it did. The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Authority recently made a $1 million investment in the headwaters of northern New Mexico. Those funds will be pooled with the money raised by the Rio Grande Water Fund for forest restoration.

It started with the Authority’s 100-year water management strategy plan, “Water 2120,” which involved the community in putting together a process for anticipating water demand and supply for the next century. “We looked at what’s going on in the context of climate change, and in anticipating demand for water in New Mexico. We recognized that there would be a lot of benefit in looking really long term,” says Hart Stebbins.

“It was clear that our surface water could be threatened by different wildfire events,” she says. The community had already experienced such an event in 2011, with the Las Conchas fire. Flash flooding on the Middle Rio Grande washed fire ash down the river that forced the Authority to shut down surface water intake. “That was a wake-up call,” says Hart Stebbins.

Getting approval for a $1 million investment, however, was no small task. “The biggest challenge was the unwillingness of some people in policy-making positions to look long term,” says Hart Stebbins. Ultimately, it was about convincing them of the importance of preparing for low probability, high-risk impact events, such as catastrophic wildfire in the watershed.

Hart Stebbins credits ratepayer intelligence with the ultimate approval of the investment, along with the ability of the leadership team to communicate goals and strategies clearly. “Nobody wants to raise rates, but if the ratepayers understand what the challenges are, and what the new revenue is being used for, they will support it,” she says.

Laura McCarthy and the Rio Grande Water Fund took a central role in that communication strategy, says Hart Stebbins. “They reached out to local governments, business organizations, and other entities in this community to explain the value of the watershed or the watershed protection plan,” she says. “Having articulate, intelligent spokespeople to advocate was incredibly important.”

Carpe Diem West’s convening in Albuquerque in 2014 was also a turning point for the Authority. “It certainly gave me a personal understanding and much better grasp of the challenges,” says Hart Stebbins. “Some of our Water Agency staff were there as well, and that made a huge difference. We began building on the information and expertise you brought to New Mexico.”

It’s one more proof of the power of a strong network—and the importance of those face-to-face meetings, where the Western water community comes together to share knowledge, experience, and great ideas.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Taylor

Photo Credit: Tom Kelly / Creative Commons

From Decades of Discord to a Mountain Accord

Collaboration in the Central Wasatch

"The most important thing is to secure our water supplies for the future. But we also recognize and celebrate the environmental, recreational and economic benefits that flow from this coordinated approach.”

– Laura Briefer, Director Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities

Utah’s Central Wasatch mountains are beloved by those who live in cities and towns on either side of its mighty ridgeline. Thousands of people every year hike, bike, ski, discover wildlife, ramble, and find solitude in one of the world’s most spectacular backyards.

But recreation is not the only, or even the most important, benefit of the Wasatch Range. Even as these mountains provide breathtaking ski runs, peace, and wild spaces, they also make life possible in Utah’s arid climate. More than 500,000 people, including the state’s big cities and productive farms, rely on these mountains for water.

For decades, in the grand Western tradition, the region’s cities, farmers, ski operators, environmentalists, developers, the US Forest Service and the State of Utah have fought over who gets how much water, and when.

A few years ago, many of the participants in this long-running battle made it to the negotiating table and started to talk. City, industry, community, and agricultural leaders knew that spending years and millions of dollars on court costs and litigation wasn’t doing anyone any good. They agreed, at first reluctantly, to set aside their old conflicts and start fresh.

During months of meetings and informal weekend discussions, they came to agreement on the broad strokes of a grand bargain. It would balance the realities of hydrology and climate science, as well as the need for a new federal wilderness designation and a new mountain transportation plan. They created a vision for the mountains, their communities, and their economy, based on protecting water supplies for all players. They called it the Mountain Accord.

“The most important thing is to secure our water supplies for the future,” says Laura Briefer, director of the Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities. “But we also recognize and celebrate the environmental, recreational, and economic benefits that flow from this coordinated approach.”

The hard work continued in 2017, with the Accord’s implementation and the formation of the Central Wasatch Commission, an “interlocal” agency and political subdivision of the State of Utah. It’s charged with formalizing collaboration and streamlining decision-making among multiple jurisdictions with authorities in the Central Wasatch Mountains. Priorities include public engagement, transportation solutions, recreational infrastructure, and watershed protection.

To this iconic landscape of the West, the Commission, along with its companion public stakeholder advisors, is setting out to bring landscape-scale protections and solutions for people and nature. It’s a great beginning, and a testament to the power of determined collaboration.

For more information, visit carpediemwest.org

Join Us

Water is the face of climate change in the American West

209 Caledonia Street, 2nd floor

Sausalito, CA 94965

P: 415.332.2112 E: info@carpdiemwest.org

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.