DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: Here's a question people in the west have long struggled over - who owns the water? It's a question that came up in Colorado when landowners wanted to stop rafters from floating through what they believed was their property, and it's now a pressing question on the Colorado River, which runs from the Rockies into Mexico. Two states, Wyoming and Colorado, are thinking of building reservoirs to store water, perhaps leasing it to a state that needs it more. Here's Wyoming Public Radio's Melodie Edwards.
MELODIE EDWARDS, BYLINE: Rancher Bill Taliver (ph) spears hay off a flatbed trailer. He raises sheep in southwestern Wyoming. Today, he wears a facemask against the bitter, cold wind. Nearby, the Green River, a main tributary of the Colorado River, is frozen solid. Taliver owns 1,700 acres along its banks.
BILL TALIVER: We're producing roughly between four and five tons of hay per acre per year, so this area will produce if it has water.
EDWARDS: But he says most of his neighbors don't have water rights on the river. Low oil prices have hurt Wyoming's economy, and Taliver's worried the state will try to cash in on its water by leasing it to California.
TALIVER: Well, you can lease whatever you want, but you'll never get it back once they're using it. And so I'm saying we've got to put it to use with agriculture.
EDWARDS: Wyoming's leadership actually agrees with Taliver. The state recently announced plans to use or store all the Colorado River water the state has a right to.
NEPHI COLE: We have a right to use roughly 14 percent of the Upper Basin water on the Colorado system.
EDWARDS: That's the Wyoming water policy adviser, Nephi Cole. He says right now, almost 200,000 acre feet of Wyoming's share of the river just washes downstream to Utah and Arizona every year. And that's enough to supply a city of 2 million.
COLE: You look at a lot of states on the Colorado River system, and they're struggling to find more water. And in Wyoming, we actually have access to the water.
EDWARDS: The law of the river is use it or lose it, and Wyoming State Engineer Pat Tyrrell says even though Wyoming may not need all that water right now, it has to plan for a drier future.
PAT TYRRELL: It's very easy to be schizophrenic in the Colorado River Basin.
EDWARDS: Schizophrenic because the more the lower states suffer, the more the upper states are motivated to hoard their allotments. But Tyrrell says even if Wyoming wanted to, the water agreement known as the Colorado River Compact doesn't allow upper states to sell water to lower ones.
TYRRELL: There's this notion that under the compact, that what we have is wet water that we can put in a shopping bag and sell to Nevada. You can't do that under the law of the river. You're not given that water in a bag.
EDWARDS: In other words, you're given the use of the river, not a certain number of gallons. Meanwhile, neighboring Colorado knows exactly where its running water will be going. The guy who oversees the Colorado River in the state is James Eklund. He says the population of the cities in his state are expected to nearly double in the next 35 years.
JAMES EKLUND: You know, they've got to go get water somewhere. And if they've depleted the groundwater underneath their footprint, then they've got to look at other sources.
EDWARDS: Eklund says his state's water plan calls for expanding dams or building new ones to store enough to meet the demand of all those people. Back at his ranch, Wyomingite Bill Taliver says he knows California needs more water to keep growing the nation's food. But the drought has changed things, and maybe how food is grown is one of them. He points at a map of the area.
TALIVER: This would be a great place to bring dairy cattle and feed them. You've got a nice climate. You could raise a lot of hay.
EDWARDS: Both Colorado and Wyoming say they're waiting hear how much has been budgeted for their new water plans so they can start stockpiling their share of Colorado River water as soon as possible. For NPR News, I'm Melodie Edwards in Laramie.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.