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Q&A: Durango water-rights activist uses social media to educate

Teal Lehto has 48,000 followers after one year on Tiktok

Water is life. Multi-national companies buy water rights around the world, while nations and states fight over who is allotted how much and from where. Nowhere is that more evident than the 1,450-mile-long Colorado River, which drains a massive and arid watershed that encompasses parts of seven U.S. states and two Mexican states.

Teal Lehto, aka WesternWaterGirl, is a water-rights activist who has 48,000 followers on Tiktok. (Courtesy of Teal Lehto)

News of climate change and water shortages in the West can overwhelm, leading to information burnout and often a societal throwing up of the hands. After all, what can one person do to make any significant impact?

Durango resident Teal Lehto, who also goes by the handle WesternWaterGirl, does not believe any one person can make a change. But that is not stopping the water-rights activist from doing everything in her power to help bring about a collective change.

The 25-year-old, with a history in big mountain snowboarding, and international competitive river rafting, graduated from Fort Lewis College in 2020 with a degree in environmental studies and political science. While a student, she founded and presided over H2Org, a student-led organization dedicated to water resource issues in the Southwest.

In April 2022, Lehto started WesternWaterGirl on TikTok to inform and educate people about water issues in the West, particularly related to the Colorado River. She has 48,000 followers who tune in for what National Public Radio described as her “fast-paced, snarky and often profanity-laced takes on the West’s water crisis.”

DH: Why did you get into water issues?

TL: Well, growing up in Durango, obviously, rivers run through the very heart of our community, literally and figuratively. So I've always kind of felt tied to those environments. And then after seeing the Gold King Mine spill in 2015, and realizing that this body of water that our entire community relies on for entertainment, recreation, social cohesion in general was threatened by such a calamitous event. It made me realize that those resources need people to stand up for them.

Are environmental conservation groups reaching young people through social media?

I think they could be. I don't think they're doing a great job at this time. And I think it is a form of media that is really being overlooked by the older generations who are running a lot of these organizations. And they're missing the fact that is the strongest grassroots organizing tool that we have right now. Social media has a really unique ability to connect people and democratize information in a way we've never seen before.

You have mentioned reaching out through non-traditional social media. What is an example of that?

One of the researchers for the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) recently put out a series of 35 haikus that summarize the data. And I think that's a really unique and good way to engage people with conversation that can otherwise be really dry and sometimes really scary.

Is there a bite-sized answer to the big question – where are we with water longevity in the Colorado River?

I think there is. I think the answer is that we have all of the tools, technology, science, data and experts at our disposal. It is just up to our publicly elected officials and policymakers to actually follow the data and the science and pursue every means necessary to create an ethic of water conservation among every single resident and industry within the Southwestern United States.

Did this year’s snowpack make a dent in the water crisis?

I like to answer questions like this with a little bit of a snarky answer, which is that if I knew the exact answer to that question I would make a whole lot more money than I do right now. I do think we basically staved off those doomsday predictions that they were saying might happen in July of this year, which was like minimum power pool at Lake Powell. I don't think we'll see that happen this year, and we probably won't see it happen next year. But that doesn't remove or negate the fact that we are facing a massive water-budget deficit in the Colorado River Basin. And there will be a moment of reckoning for that whether or not this year or next year, or in five or 10 years. It is coming. And we all need to do our part to address that crisis.

Word is the Biden administration is preparing to impose reductions in water supplies to states for the first time. The plan proposes cutting water delivery to California, Arizona and Nevada by as much as one-quarter. How much water is one-quarter?

The Bureau of Reclamation has previously stated we need to reduce our consumption within the basin by 2 to 4 million-acre-feet. And to put that into perspective, I believe Colorado gets somewhere around 2.3 million-acre-feet. Don't quote me on that one. I can't remember exactly how much it is. But California as a whole, which is the largest stakeholder in the Colorado River Basin, gets 4.4 million-acre-feet. So we are talking about pretty large amounts of reductions in consumption.

How is the water moved to those other states? Is it piped?

Starting around 1905, they began building a series of canals that deliver the water from the Colorado River Basin into that LA metropolitan area and the Imperial Valley. So there's thousands of miles (of canals) that have actually doubled the length of the river. Most are not pipes but open-surface canals, which is actually a huge problem because we're dealing with a lot of evaporation. That’s where a lot of this water is going.

The Bureau of Reclamation built a ton of water infrastructure in order for everybody to get the amount that is allotted to them in the Colorado River Compact. And I say everybody, but I should caveat that the tribes were not included in that, and the Indigenous tribes of the Colorado River Basin actually hold the legal rights to about 30% of the water in the basin. But many of them lack access to those water rights.

If the administration’s proposed cuts go through, how quickly would those reductions begin?

Originally, the BOR asked the states to come up with a plan to reduce their consumption by 25% on their own by 2024, so they are looking at a pretty expedited timescale. Unfortunately, they did not come up with a solution on their own. And this is the feds response. I phrased it on one of my Tiktok videos as, ‘If you can't play nicely, then we're just going to take the toys away.’ That's basically what federal officials are doing.

It seems that no matter which way we turn, the environmental news is bad and getting worse and people tend to tune out. How do you keep them engaged?

I heard this quote at a conference... a scientist said we have plenty of data, we have plenty of studies – we need storytellers. We don't have enough people that are telling the story of what is happening to our environment. And I think that's why people are tuning out. You can only hear so many depressing statistics before you choose to just tune out and not listen anymore. That's what I like about my platform. I am talking about things that are kind of scary, things that have big impacts on everybody who lives in this region. We need to know about them. We're all going to have to make sacrifices to make this region a sustainable place to inhabit for generations to come. And to do that we need to know what's at stake. And it is important to communicate that information in funny and relatable but accurate ways.

Water issues can be dry and policy heavy. What is your elevator pitch to pique people's interest and get them engaged?

I would start by explaining the gravity of the situation. We are looking at the potential collapse of the Western water and power infrastructure within the next decade, which is pretty scary. But then if you zoom out just a little bit further and look at the whole system of water management in the West, it doesn't really make a whole lot of sense. So a lot of times you can hook people by just cracking jokes about the fact that we legally encourage farmers to use more water, because that's how our water rights system is set up. And that's just crazy. It's ludicrous. It doesn't make any sense. And it's kind of funny when you think about it, and it's also kind of hilarious that we've been running with a legal doctrine of water allocation in the Colorado River for a century that is completely out of touch with the environmental reality. And people have just been like, yep, that's how it is. ...

You mentioned previously that about 89% of the water in Colorado goes to agriculture. What agricultural use is it going to?

A lot of it is going to alfalfa and other cattle feed crop. And we're also not necessarily using the most efficient irrigation methods. About 45% of the farmland in Colorado still uses flood irrigation. And there are proponents and opponents of that technique, because in some ways, it does help recharge groundwater, but the reality is when you flood-irrigate, 50% of that water is not going toward the plants.

It all feels overwhelming, like one individual can’t do much of anything to impact these big issues besides turning the water off in between brushing our teeth or taking shorter showers. How do you work through that mentality and sense of hopelessness that people have?

I definitely relate to that sense of hopelessness because I don't believe there are individual solutions to systemic problems and our water issues in the West are a systemic problem. However, I don't think we're going to see a whole lot of change until the general public and Zeitgeist is discussing these issues and recognizing how ludicrous our water-rights system really is. Policy officials need to be incentivized to do something about it because right now they're incentivized to ignore a lot of those glaring issues because the farm lobby has been lobbying them for a long time to keep things the way they are.

Will calls to fill Lake Mead and Lake Powell affect ranchers and farmers in Southwest Colorado?

There is a general sentiment among a lot of irrigators, ranchers, farmers and agriculturalists in this region that California is coming for our water. And that's not an illogical fear because we are legally obligated to provide them a significant amount. I do not think those irrigators have anything to worry about from filling Lake Powell. Everybody wants to fill Lake Powell and nobody knows what to do about it. There just isn't enough water. At the end of the day, it's a simple math equation. We don't have enough water to fill all of the reservoirs within the basin and we're not going to have enough water to do that.

To learn more go to: https://www.westernwatergirl.com/


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