Southern Nevada Water Authority appeals for federal help


WASHINGTON -- Southern Nevada's top water manager on Tuesday appealed for the federal government to chip in as the region confronts billion-dollar costs to keep the taps running after more than a decade of drought.

Pat Mulroy jokingly said she would welcome "anything" from Uncle Sam but focused on the possibility of low-interest loans similar to ones that helped build the area's water system years ago.

"For us to go to the credit markets, especially in the environment we are in right now, is horrendously difficult," said Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. "Whether it is a grant program to begin some planning efforts and provide some funding up front, or in the bigger context some kind of loan program, we are saying give us a vehicle by which it becomes more manageable for us financially."

At a Capitol Hill briefing, Mulroy and water executives from New York, Los Angeles and Seattle said meaningful federal money dried up years ago but is needed now more than ever as cities of all sizes confront the effects of climate change.

Mulroy drew a chilling picture of the decade-long drought that has made necessary the construction of a third pipeline to draw water from a Lake Mead whose levels have dropped more than 100 feet.

"The third intake is truly an expensive project," Mulroy said. "That project is going to cost us around $800 million." With other required upgrades to pumping equipment and conservation efforts, "we are well over a billion dollars on a climate impact that happened overnight. There was no gradual way to deal with it. We had to deal with it immediately."

"This wake-up call has been an enormous reality change for all of us in the Southwest," Mulroy said. "For us, climate change isn't something out in the future. The consequences of climate change have happened."

Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., promoted a bill she has sponsored that would authorize $250 million over five years in federal cost-sharing grants to water systems dealing with climate change.

Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., is a co-sponsor, while Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., is backing a Senate version introduced by Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md.

Neither bill has moved since being introduced in the summer.

"I don't think Congress has caught up quite yet" to the need, Capps aide Karen Heymann said.

Mulroy said, "We are looking to this bill to provide an avenue to begin to have the federal government recognize its role."

Even at that, the legislation might provide no more than a drop in the bucket.

A 2009 study by the engineering firm CH2M Hill estimated that utilities face between $448 billion and $944 billion in costs through 2050 to adapt to growing uncertainties over amounts of available water and its quality.

"Ratepayers can't bear this expense entirely," said Angela Licata, deputy commissioner of sustainability for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection.

"Ratepayers consist of people with healthy economic situations, and they also consist of people on the other end of the economic scale. When they see rate increases of 2 percent a year or 14 percent over 10 years, this starts to become a very large burden for our municipalities."

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.