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 percent snowpack, yet runoff was only 54 percent 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 would come with a vast sum 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 thinks 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 percent 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 BuRec 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 percent, using both carrot and stick.
California charges the highest water rates in the West and also…