This week’s episode of What’s Up With Water covers a win for environmentalists in Albania, a call for action on phosphorus management from the science community, and a recent decision to cut freshwater use at a major copper mine in Chile. Plus, Circle of Blue reports on the “mega-watersheds” of the American West.


Welcome to “What’s Up With Water” – your need-to-know news of the world’s water from Circle of Blue. I’m Eileen Wray-McCann.

Environmental groups are celebrating a victory in Albania, where the government has blocked the construction of a dam on one of Europe’s last wild rivers. The Associated Press reports that the Vjosa River will be declared a national park, protecting it from development. The prospect of eight hydropower dams on the Vjosa generated an international campaign to protect the 170-mile river. To plan the national park, the Albanian government has called on the environmental groups EcoAlbania and RiverWatch. Also in the mix is the clothing company Patagonia, which lobbied for river protections. The groups will fund and organize an expert panel to advise on how to set up the park and manage it.

In a report released last week, scientists called for world leaders to do a better job of managing phosphorus, a nutrient commonly used in farm fertilizer. Overuse of the nutrient has had far-reaching consequences for human health and the environment. Algal blooms choke rivers and lakes, while low-oxygen dead zones suffocate fish and other marine life. In their report, the scientists advocate what they call  a “50:50:50” goal. That means reducing global phosphorus pollution by 50 percent and increasing phosphorus recycling by 50 percent – both by the year 2050.

In Chile, a major mining company says that by 2030, it will no longer use freshwater in its operations at a large copper mine. Anglo American wants to expand the Los Bronces mine and keep extracting ore through 2036. The mine taps one of the largest copper reserves in Chile, the leading copper-producing country in the world. However, Chile, is a very dry country and is suffering a severe drought. Reuters reports that Anglo American intends to shift to desalinated water and recycled water for mining operations at Los Bronces by 2030. The company is trying to convince the Chilean government to allow it to expand the mine. Last month, Chile’s environmental regulator rejected the project.

This week, Circle of Blue reports on the spillover effects of drought in the American West.

On a map, the watersheds of the American West are distinct geographical features, framed by imposing plateaus and towering mountain ridges.

A closer look shows those natural boundaries are less distinct. A sprawling network of pipelines and canals pierce mountains and cross deserts, linking many of the mighty rivers and smaller streams of the West. These “mega-watersheds” have redrawn the map, helping cities and farms to grow large and productive. But they have also becoming political flashpoints with steep environmental costs.

Bill Hasencamp is with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a wholesale water provider known as Met. He sees the western watersheds as a single interconnected system. Hasencamp speaks from the perspective of Southern California, a region that draws water from basins hundreds of miles away in Northern California and from the Colorado River. Hasencamp manages Colorado River resources, so he has one eye on Met’s 19-million person home territory while the other peers across the Mojave Desert at another supply –  the shrinking lakes Mead and Powell.

Not every river in the West is linked and few regions are as networked as Southern California. But there are enough connections to assure that the water supply effects in the drying American West are not isolated. They involve neighboring watersheds.

Here’s an example, starting in Northern California: the Trinity River Diversion, a federal project, connects the Klamath River basin to the Sacramento River watershed. The Sacramento River flows south until meeting the San Joaquin River in the West Coast’s largest estuary. Water from the two rivers is pumped, via state and federal canals, to counties south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Once the Northern California water arrives in Southern California, it mingles with water from the Colorado River. That water is imported through the Colorado River Aqueduct, nearly 250 miles long. Upstream on the Colorado River, there are more links. Tributary streams in Colorado are diverted through the San Juan-Chama [cha as in charm] Project into New Mexico, where the water enters the Rio Grande system and supplies Albuquerque and Santa Fe. The Central Utah Project pulls Colorado River water into the orbit of the fast-growing Wasatch Front, which is outside the basin.

In the headwaters state of Colorado, 11 major interbasin transfers unite rivers on both sides of the Rockies. The Moffat and Adams tunnels cut through the Continental Divide, a feat of engineering that brings Colorado River water into the South Platte River basin, where it is gulped by Denver and other Front Range cities.

Smaller projects also crisscross the landscape. San Francisco reaches into the Tuolumne River. Los Angeles taps the Owens River. The Potter Valley Project diverts water from Northern California’s Eel River into the Russian River, which flows through Sonoma wine country.

Water managers like Hasencamp appreciate having a range of sources to draw from. If one area is dry, they can turn to another watershed. Hasencamp said “It’s just one egg in a big basket.” Problems develop when several of those eggs turn out to be rotten at the same time. The weather in northern California affects water supplies not only in Southern California, but also in cities, farms, and ecosystems throughout the Colorado River’s mega-watershed. When Northern California is dry, Hasencamp’s agency pulls more water from the Colorado River. That puts added pressure on Lake Mead, which is at its lowest point since it was filled in the 1930s.

These diversions offer flexibility, but they have consequences – both environmental and social. For example, they have depleted water for native fish. And many of these diversions — from the Owens River in California to the West Slope of Colorado — flow with a legacy of acrimony and mistrust, stirred up decades ago by the political imbalance between the rural areas where water was extracted and the urban areas where that water got sent.

And that’s “What’s Up With Water”  from Circle of Blue, where water speaks. More water news and analysis await you at This is Eileen Wray-McCann – thanks for being here.