Meet The 28-Year-Old Californian Trying To Save The Colorado River

JB Hamby is California’s lead negotiator in the historic negotiation over the source of 30% of Southern California’s drinking water

Once the water has passed the drop, it flows downhill by gravity towards the Imperial Valley. (Zaydee Sanchez/LAist)

The Colorado River is in crisis — one of the worst in recorded history. We take more water out of the river than flows in, and climate change is making things worse. So for the past several months, the seven states that use Colorado River water have been trying to come up with a plan to keep the river from collapsing. Thirty tribal nations and Mexico also tap the Colorado River, but they are not formally represented in these negotiations. California is the single largest user of Colorado River water, which means that any effort to save the river involves California making some serious cuts. 

The states have until the end of 2025 to make a deal. And recently, the states have been deadlocked over who should use less water, and how much. The states in the “Upper Basin” (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico) vehemently disagree with the states in the “Lower Basin” (California, Arizona, and Nevada). 

If they can’t make a deal in time, and the river continues to dry up without an agreement about how to handle that, no one knows what will happen. 

At the very worst, big reservoirs could get so low, no water would pass through the dams. That means 30% of Southern California’s drinking water would be cut off, likely resulting in strict rationing and higher prices for water.

JB Hamby is California’s lead negotiator on Colorado River issues and the subject of a new season of Imperfect Paradise called The Gen Z Water Dealmaker. 

NAME: John Brooks Hamby, aka J.B.

AGE: 28

HOMETOWN: Brawley, California

DAY JOB: Board member of Imperial Irrigation District, a public utility that imports Colorado River water to California’s Imperial Valley and provides electricity. Elected in 2020.

SIDE HUSTLE: Lead negotiator for California on Colorado River issues. Elected in 2023.


NUMBER OF CARS: One, a silver 2013 Toyota Prius with 210,000 miles.

NUMBER OF BOOKS HE’S READ ABOUT THE COLORADO RIVER: A lot. Not exactly sure. I’m on the market for some bookshelves.

FAVORITE ANIMAL: The desert pupfish. They’re an endangered fish native to the lower Colorado River and Arizona. They’re half the size of your pinky, tolerate heat and salinity, and the males turn bright blue when mating. I have a pupfish hat and sticker on my water bottle!

FAVORITE ARTICLE OF CLOTHING: My silver belt buckle. It’s made by a Navajo jeweler, and I bought it in Prescott, Arizona.

FAVORITE SMELLS: Lemon blossoms, fresh-cut alfalfa or the desert after it rains.

A TYPICAL DAY: At home, it is waking up and immediately checking emails, reading from a short stack of documents over breakfast, making calls throughout the morning, and then meetings in the afternoon for Colorado River or energy-related issues. In the evening, I go on a walk and read Robert Caro’s The Power Broker before bed. I travel a lot to Denver, Phoenix, and Las Vegas to meet with the other Colorado River basin states, or to Washington, D.C., to talk to our congressional delegates. 

WORRIES: The seven states that use the Colorado River could fail to come up with a solution we can all live with.

NIGHTMARE SCENARIO: Two things: the big reservoirs on the river dropping so low, no water can pass through the dams – which means no water for California. It’s called deadpool. Or going to the Supreme Court over these ongoing negotiations.

WHAT GIVES ME HOPE: The Lower Basin states of Arizona, California, and Nevada have already come so far to overcome divisions and historical disagreements. We’ve done the same in California between cities, farms and tribes. There is little limit to what we can accomplish if we are working constructively toward a common goal, not vilifying others or absolving ourselves of any responsibility.

WANNA LEARN MORE? Listen to the new series of Imperfect Paradise: The Gen Z Water Dealmaker.

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