May 1, 2008
On Dry Land
The water czar of Las Vegas talks about balancing rapid development with smart land-use and natural-resource planning.
Patricia Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, may be the most powerful person in Las Vegas. She’s responsible for keeping the water flowing in the desert metropolis—no mean feat in a city that was adding almost 8,000 new residents a month until the recent real estate meltdown. A controversial local figure (“Mulroy has no real counterpart on the East Coast,” the New York Times reported. “Her nearest analogue might be Robert Moses.”), she oversees everything from public-works projects to conservation efforts and water negotiations with neighboring states and municipalities in the Colorado River basin.
Mulroy’s immense task has been further complicated by persistent drought and the threat of climate change. The two reservoirs that provide water for 27 million people in seven states—Lake Mead and Lake Powell—are now half full.
A recent Scripps Institution of Oceanography study found a 50 percent chance that both lakes will dry up by 2021 and a ten percent chance that they will run out of usable water by 2013. Currently, the water authority is moving forward with a controversial plan to pump water from the aquifers in the rural north. Executive editor Martin C. Pedersen recently spoke to Mulroy about the drought, her battles with local environmentalists, and the future of development in the West.
Is Las Vegas—and the West in general—facing a water emergency?
This drought’s a wake-up call. There are a lot of things that have to change in the West, primarily our consumption. Conservation is central to everything we do. Given the national population increases predicted for the next twenty to thirty years, we know that some of that growth is going to occur in the West. So the amount each of us uses individually, and what we use on a per-capita basis, has to be driven way down. We have to become far more sustainable in our water-use and land-use patterns. And that transformation is beginning to happen in Las Vegas. When I see a high-rise go up, I’m delighted. A high-rise building has a very small water footprint.
Can Las Vegas continue its current rate of development given the likelihood of long-term drought and climate change?
It’s not whether you develop, it’s how you develop. What we have experienced from 2002 to today is a great case in point. In 2002 we delivered 320,000 acre-feet of water from the Colorado River into Las Vegas. Then we began our aggressive conservation program—we spent almost $100 million converting grass lawns into drought-tolerant landscaping in southern Nevada. We put the entire community on a water diet in terms of how they water outside and when. We put golf courses on a water budget. All the building codes were changed to prevent the installation of grass. These measures allowed us within an eighteen-month to two-year period to reduce our 320,000-acre-foot annual delivery to 265,000. We’ve stayed pretty flat since then, and during that entire period we were growing by 8,000 people a month.
One local environmentalist said of you, “Pat genuinely wants to do the right thing, but the policies she’s pursuing are facilitating the sprawl that continues to feed our need for water.” Your response?
It’s the growth issue. There is a sector of the environmental community that wants growth to be shut down. Show me a major metropolitan area anywhere in this country that has shut down growth. The vast majority of this state’s economy is in southern Nevada—we’re the economic engine. And when you look at projected population, it’s logical to ask, Where are those people going to go? It’s the definition of NIMBYism.
And yet the places in the West experiencing huge population growth are likely to face the most chronic water shortages. How do we address that?
You’re going to have water problems resulting from climate change whether you’re in a water-scarce area or one that’s going to get more water. It doesn’t matter. The consequences of climate change—whether drought, flooding, or water contamination caused by rising ocean levels—will force us to adapt to a different way of managing water resources. There’s no silver bullet. Are we accommodating people that come to southern Nevada? Yes. But they have to be accommodated somewhere.
What about environmentalists who argue that you should secure water first and then bring in development, rather than bring in development and then scramble to find more water?
In an ideal world that would be wonderful, but we don’t live in an ideal world, and I just don’t see it happening. You get to a point where, from a financial standpoint, what has worked well for us is to build facilities as late as possible because then you have the mass to pay for them.
Scientists believe the twentieth century was abnormally wet and that we may be entering a protracted drought more typical of what the West experienced during the twentieth century.
I agree. I’m in full agreement.
Were all the water assumptions based on a flawed model?
All of the water assumptions have changed from 1999 to today. And that gets right to the heart of what I’ve been saying. We have to anticipate that the impossible is possible and have contingency plans ready to activate. We’re adapting daily to what’s happening around us. So given the current state of affairs, we now include a drought plan and a healthy-river plan in our resource report outlining where the water comes from under both scenarios. We have to.
If the drought were to continue indefinitely, where would your water come from? Aquifer drilling in northern Nevada and desalinization?
Desalinization won’t help us in a drought. It will help California, but it won’t help us because we would just be getting more of the water they take from the Colorado River—but if that’s too low, it doesn’t help. My guess is the most likely place where cities in the Southwest will be going for desalinated water is Mexico, simply because of the price of real estate on the California coast, the level of development there, and those communities quite frankly not wanting big ugly desalters with big ugly power plants dotting the coastline. It is a land-use issue to them, not a water issue.
Should the cost of water in Las Vegas reflect the preciousness of the resource?
Oh, absolutely. But it’s how you step into it. You can’t go from where you are now all the way there overnight. It becomes ineffective. You have to stair-step into it. You also have to provide enough of a financial incentive to get people to make the conversions. You’re not out to punish people; you want to remind them of the value of water, and there’s a point at which water pricing is not flexible. That first 5,000 gallons—maybe even 8,000—is inelastic. People are going to use it regardless. They’re going to take a shower. So it is a very delicate balance that you have to strike.
Put on a futurist hat: you’re named regional water czar for the Colorado River, with real political clout and a big budget. How do you go about solving the water crisis?
The first thing I would do is get the shortage issues with Mexico resolved so that opportunities open up for us to build desalters that can benefit the United States during periods of nonshortage and benefit Mexico during shortage years. I would open up a larger dialogue with the agricultural community about a willingness to partner with the cities—not to wipe them out but to partner with them. I would also invest heavily in conservation and water-use campaigns. But another large chunk of the money would go to the science of climate change. Eight of us have formed a climate coalition: New York City, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, all of Southern California, San Diego, Denver, and ourselves. We’ve gone to the U.S. Congress and said, We need you to take the issue of climate change out of the closet and invest significant dollars around the implications of climate change to the water supply of this country. Whether it’s taking those large global models and bringing them down to a usable regional level, or refining the nexus between temperature and precipitation, give us some planning tools. That’s what the water industry needs. The cities need to reach out and help the agricultural community too, because that balance needs to be struck. I would move heaven and earth to forge partnerships wherever they’re possible.
You sound like an environmentalist.
But local environmentalists accuse you of being…
Not all environmentalists!
Many of them have accused you of just being an “enabler for developers.”
We’re not enabling development: we’re protecting the community and the economy of the state of Nevada. That is what we are protecting. Economies grow; babies are born. California no longer grows from in-migration. It grows in and of itself now. Births exceed deaths. The no-growthers don’t have a solution for how you grow. How do you stop growth? And a relationship with developers has been critical because we’ve been able to get them to dramatically change how they build. A relationship with the gaming community has brought about huge reductions. The Las Vegas strip gets flogged all the time. It uses only three percent of the water. People are coming to this country. We have a global population explosion. To simply push the problem off on someone else isn’t going to solve it. These people are going to use natural resources whether here or somewhere else. The issues will be different, but the complexities won’t be any less intricate. This is such NIMBYism!
When you read about water, all roads eventually lead back to climate change. Are you optimistic about the future, or do you feel like we’re in some sort of race with calamity?
I think we’re at a crossroads. We have an opportunity to start turning things around. Everyone worries about some kind of economic Armageddon that’s going to happen as a consequence of climate change. We need to define very carefully how our journey into sustainability is going to go. There is a lot of low-hanging fruit we haven’t taken advantage of. But we’ve got to come to grips with the fact that it’s happening, be willing to look it square in the face, start talking about what changes we need to make, and quit pretending it doesn’t exist.