For the West this summer, the news about water was grim. In some parts of California, it didn’t rain for over 100 days. In western Colorado, the ground was so dry that runoff at first evaporated into the air. And in New Mexico and Nevada, the rains never came.

Bill Hasencamp is the manager of California’s Metropolitan Water District, which provides treated water to 19 million people. What was most unfortunate, he said, was that, “the upper Colorado Basin had a 100% snowpack, yet runoff was only 54% of normal.” In 2018, a variation happened — light snow and little runoff, which doesn’t bode well for the future.

What everyone wants to know, though, is who loses most if severe drought becomes the norm.

Gary Wockner, who heads the nonprofit Save the Colorado, predicts that western Colorado ranchers and farmers will be among the biggest losers: “In any crisis situation, Colorado laws gives municipal water priority over farm water.”

He added that, “If push comes to shove, farmers on the Western Slope, might get a very hard ask to stop diverting. That hard ask will involve a vast amount of money.” Which might explain why so many deep-pocketed speculators are buying up Colorado ranches and farms, especially near Grand Junction, Colorado. Speculators include a New York hedge fund, Water Asset Management, along with Michael Burry, a Wall Street trader made famous in the movie, “The Big Short.”

Wockner believes selling water rights to the highest bidder is a dangerous idea. “Any time you try to monetize a natural resource, the resource will get further exploited.”

What makes the Western Slope of Colorado most vulnerable to drought is a pact among seven states signed in 1922. It bound the states to give priority in a water crisis to the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada, potentially leaving the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming high and dry.

A crisis could be approaching. The two giant reservoirs on the Colorado River are both below 50% of capacity. If drought causes even more drastic drops, the Bureau of Reclamation could step in to prioritize the making of electricity by the hydro plants at lakes Mead and Powell. No one knows what the bureau would do, but it would call the shots and end current arrangements.

Before that happened, California could “call” for the water it is owed — 4.4 million acre-feet annually. In that case, Wockner said, ranches and farms would be forced to go dry before city residents suffered.

For now, California has avoided flexing its muscle to get its fair share of the Colorado River. To stop the Colorado River’s reservoirs from dropping to “dead pool” where power generation fails, California acts as if serious drought never ended. Since 2000, when the punishing drought began, California has cut annual water consumption by 30%, using both carrot and stick.

California charges the highest water rates in the West and also pays for efficiency. Under a program called Cash for Grass, “A good size lawn removal can net a homeowner $30,000,” said Rebecca Kimitch, who works for the Metropolitan Water District.

The state also invests in smarter irrigation, piping leaky ditches in the Imperial Valley, the Colorado River’s biggest irrigator. And it invests in desalinization plants and reuses some of its water via a program that was first derided as “toilet-to-tap.” More recently, statewide laws restrict personal daily consumption to a measly 55 gallons, declining to 50 gallons by 2030.

As for the Upper Basin, states continue to push not for water conservation but for more dams and reservoirs that would drain water from the basin, such as the proposed St. George diversion from Lake Powell. John Fleck, director of the water resources program at the University of New Mexico said, “it’s not a binary question of: Is there enough water? The way we need to think is that the system is at risk, and every time you take more water you create risks for existing users.”

Meanwhile, California is king of the Colorado River and wants you to know it.

“We’ll never give up that right — our first priority among all Colorado River water users — and never say we’ll give up that right,” Hassencamp told me. " That’s our fallback position, though we’ll set it aside for now and try to work out a solution."

For Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, this is a clear warning. As Hassencamp put it: “We recognize the pie is shrinking for good.”

David Marston | Writers on the Range

Dave Marston is the publisher of Writers on the Range, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West.