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Guide racks up TikTok views explaining the megadrought in the Colorado River

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A 25-year-old river guide is racking up TikTok views while explaining the megadrought in the Colorado River basin. Luke Runyon of member station KUNC reports.

LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: Teal Lehto honed her short, snappy explanations of the West's water problems guiding rafting trips down the Animas River in her hometown of Durango. She'd have just a couple minutes in between shouting paddle commands to the tourists in her boat. And after running the same stretch of river a few times a day for months...

TEAL LEHTO: You get to the point where you're like, OK, I know I'm going to need to call a command in exactly 45 seconds. Like, what story can I tell in the meantime? And I'll tell you the better stories you tell, the better tips you get.

RUNYON: That same formula works on TikTok, just trade the tips for likes. On the app, Lehto by WesternWaterGirl, and her clips regularly garner hundreds of thousands of views.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEHTO: Remember when I said the Colorado River Basin states had exactly 31 days to come up with a plan to reduce their water consumption by 25%?

RUNYON: In her videos, Lehto, with her straight brown hair and cat-eye makeup, sits in front of the camera, news-anchor style. Photos of the Southwest's shrinking reservoirs pop up behind her.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEHTO: And hopefully, if enough of us are talking about it, then water managers and elected officials in the Southwest might feel pressure to actually change the system.

RUNYON: The Colorado River has been her focus since she started on the app earlier this spring. Tens of millions of people depend on the river, and it's facing a serious shortfall in supply. Lehto says the concepts can be hard to grasp at first, which is why she avoids all the jargon that comes with the heavily engineered systems used to plumb the arid West.

LEHTO: I get comments that are like, wow, you just connected a lot of dots for me. Like, I understood pieces of this, but you're the first person who explained it in terms that I can understand.

RUNYON: Lehto grew up rafting the streams of southwestern Colorado and says one event in particular was formative. She was working at a local outfitter one morning in 2015 when the sheriff's office called.

LEHTO: They said, I don't know what you're planning on doing today, but you're not going to be able to go rafting. And I was like, what are you talking about?

RUNYON: A plume of neon-orange wastewater released from the Gold King Mine into the Animas River was making its way toward Durango.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: In Colorado, a crew working for the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally released a million gallons of toxic sludge into a river.

RUNYON: As the news spread, Lehto, 17 years old at the time, found herself fielding calls from journalists all over the world.

LEHTO: I had no idea, like, the scale of the issue nor what to say to those people (laughter).

RUNYON: Since going viral, Lehto's TikToks have earned praise from others in the world of water. Bronson Mack is in communications for the Southern Nevada Water Authority. He came across Lehto just by scrolling and says a partnership to help spread the agency's conservation message could be in the cards.

BRONSON MACK: More than anything, the impact that we saw with that is how direct and accurate the information was.

RUNYON: Lehto says she sees a way to make this a career path. More water agencies and environmental groups are reaching out with offers to collaborate, turning her hobby into a moneymaking opportunity. And she says the timing is right because she's already found an audience.

LEHTO: Yes, it is complicated, but the public deserves to understand it, too. And that's why it's really important to break it down into, like, small bite-sized pieces.

RUNYON: Especially, she says, because the region is reaching a moment of reckoning on water management, and finding a good solution will require everyone to know how it works.

For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon in Durango, Colo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As KUNC’s reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.