The Fate of the West’s Water Rests on the Shoulders of This 27-Year-Old

When the highest stakes water negotiations in a century opened this fall, the largest, most powerful state — California — was represented by the youngest person at the table, a 27-year-old named John Brooks Hamby, who graduated from college barely four years ago.

In the short time since then, Hamby — who goes by J.B. — has risen from recent Stanford grad to candidate for his hometown irrigation district to chair of the Colorado River Board of California, a position that makes him the state’s lead negotiator for its rights to the West’s most important river.

With climate change dramatically shrinking the waterway’s flows, the seven states that share the river must now decide how to allocate deep, painful cuts in water use that will determine the future of communities across a huge swath of the country. Whether Hamby can navigate the reflexive defensiveness of this region’s hardened farmers matters not just to his own political future. It could determine the fate of a broad swath of the American West.

To the waterway’s power players and intelligentsia, whose annual meeting convenes Wednesday in Las Vegas, Hamby has come to represent the hope for a new way to resolve the generations-deep conflicts over the Colorado River.

It’s a heavy mantle for a 27-year-old whose prior work experience consists of a series of internships — two for Uber, one in Washington for a U.S senator, and one for the irrigation district’s legal department.

It’s too simple to say that it’s a showdown between agriculture and cities, but that’s a central dynamic, and Hamby now finds himself on both sides of that divide. But the negotiation has a second dynamic as well; it also pits California, the largest of the states along the river, against the others, which have burgeoning cities and agricultural interests of their own that need water.

Whether the states can find a way through those competing interests will depend a lot on Hamby, who was elected in 2020 to the board of the Imperial Irrigation District — the mercurial entity that controls the enormous supply of water that turns this slice of the Sonoran Desert into some of the country’s most productive agricultural land — on promises to protect its rights. Under the 101-year-old compact that governs the river, they are among the most senior and legally protected.