Megadrought: California vs. Colorado

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An epic drought is drying out the Colorado River. The state of Colorado, in which much of the Colorado’s water originates, has decided to keep most of the water for itself. California, which lies at the end of the Colorado River, would like to allocate the Colorado’s water to the highest bidder. Both sides are willing to use violence to get what they want. In this game, you play California, and you must get the states of the South West to agree to your water management plan.


The Colorado River is the life support system for the southwestern corner of the United States. Cities such as Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles and Tijuana all depend on the Colorado River for drinking water. Before the construction of a series of dams and aqueducts, the American South West was an underpopulated desert. The ability to capture water behind dams like the Hoover Dam and the Parker Dam enabled the epic population growth of states like Arizona, Nevada and California. If a city like Phoenix lost access to Colorado River water, it would cease to be a city. People would move away, real estate values would collapse, and a $1 trillion economy would implode. For this reason, the governments and cities of the South West take a keen interest in how the Colorado River is managed.

The vast volumes of water that flow downstream to the thirsty cities of the South West originate as melting snow in the Rocky Mountains. Mountain states like Colorado, Utah and Wyoming generate most of the water that flows into the Colorado River and its tributaries. These states have dams of their own that can regulate the flow of Colorado River water. Whoever controls dams like the Grand Valley Dam or the Glen Valley Dam holds the fate of the South West in their hands. Fortunately, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation controls all the dams along the Colorado, and allocates the water in accordance with the Colorado River Compact. This 1922 agreement between the several states allocated a fixed volume of water to each state based on the assumption that Colorado River water volumes would remain at levels achieved between 1905 and 1922. This arrangement has worked well for almost 100 years because water volumes have, in fact, remained around the early 20th century average.


Today, Colorado River water volumes are dropping, and this is putting the consensus behind the allocation of water under pressure. Precipitation in the western United States appears to have been abnormally high for the last 100 years, and precipitation levels now appear to be reverting towards a dangerously low mean. The populations of Rocky Mountain states like Colorado and Utah are growing at the same time that Rocky Mountain snow fall is declining. Keeping more of this water in state would help Rocky Mountain states sustain their growth without too much effort or cost. Consequently, this is a popular solution in Upper Basin states. Salt Lake City and Denver get to keep growing, and farmers get to keep irrigating their fields. It is the path of least resistance for Rocky Mountain politicians. Of course, this would be a disaster for downstream states like Nevada and California. These states would need to invest heavily in conservation to replace lost water volumes. Thirsty cities would also take water away from the region’s farmers. Consequently, downstream water authorities would prefer an allocation arrangement in which upstream and downstream states share the burden of conservation equally. An auction mechanism that sets a single price for Colorado River water would suit lower basin states well, as this would force upper basin states to invest in their own conservation projects.


Ultimately, this is an argument about which cities have to recycle water through toilet to tap water treatment projects, and which farmers lose their water rights. Rocky Mountain states want South Western states to drink toilet water and stop growing almonds. South Western States want everyone to drink a bit of toilet water and grow a bit more quinoa. Farmers across the region would prefer that cities use less water so that they can continue to cultivate in-demand crops that have no business being grown in the desert. Cities do not want to have to charge their residents high rates for water to cover the cost of water recycling projects, as high cost water would serve as a kind of regressive tax on the poor. Environmentalists would prefer that farmers and cities across the region use less water from the Colorado River to keep the river’s ecosystems healthy. Mexico desperately needs the US to use less Colorado River water to ensure that Tijuana can survive. Several Native American tribes have claims on Colorado River water that could be incredibly valuable if water were auctioned on the open market. New technologies such as vertical farming or genetically engineered sewage purifying microbes could dramatically reduce demand for fresh water. All these variables make Colorado River water management the perfect subject for a strategy game!

All of this will likely be resolved peacefully and quietly through negotiations…but there are a few interesting scenarios that look a bit like war:

1) Militia’s in Colorado and Utah seize control of upper basin dams from the Federal Government, and cut off the flow of water to lower basin states
2) California quietly assists Eco-terrorists to blow up upper basin dams, ensuring that Colorado River water reaches lower basin reservoirs
3) Mexico invades Arizona and takes control of the major dams to ensure that enough water reaches Tijuana
4) High water prices cause riots in poorer parts of Las Vegas, Phoenix and Southern California
5) Advances in vertical farming, drought resistant crops and cultured meat dramatically reduce agriculture’s demand for water

If you like this game, try these:

King Salman’s War
Ms. Merkel’s War
Mr. Modi’s War
Brexit: the video game

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