Unknown bureaucrat puts himself in history books with sensible water ruling

It's fascinating that Nevada placed its future in the hands of a state government appointee.

On the one hand, it's refreshing that the decision on piping rural groundwater to Las Vegas was not dictated by the single-minded thinking of politicians, casinos and developers. Much better that the matter received the objective study and consideration given it by State Engineer Tracy Taylor.

On the other hand, imagine the fallout if Taylor had not been such a level-headed fellow. What if Taylor's decision had tossed out the Southern Nevada Water Authority's bid to withdraw tens of thousands of acre-feet of water from White Pine County? This could have been a heavy blow to the growth-addicted Las Vegas economy.

Or, what if Taylor had handed the water agency everything it wanted? It's not hard to imagine the good people of White Pine County, concerned about their lush lands drying up, figuratively gathering torches and pitchforks for a modern-day head hunt.

We know, of course, that a decision wholly in favor of either side likely would have ended up in court, where months, if not years, would be wasted -- and the project thus delayed.

While Taylor no doubt weighed the scientific evidence first and foremost, he also pondered the political landscape. All things considered, he took the wisest course -- right down the middle. The water authority wanted to pump 91,000 acre-feet of water per year. Taylor granted 40,000, with the possibility down the road, if things go well, of pumping 20,000 more.

It was a deft maneuver -- imagine, a bureaucrat doing the right thing! (I'm sure many a Republican thought it couldn't be done.) When the 56-page ruling was issued last week, neither side had much to complain about. Instead of big smiles on one side and angry protests on the other, the key players basically said, "Well, that's reasonable."

That, too, is refreshing.

In this era of partisan politics, when left and right rarely even try to reach consensus for the good of the country or the state, Taylor's decision is a sign that our system is not completely busted.

And so the water authority's $2 billion rural pipeline project starts moving forward. Plans call for construction to begin in 2009 -- assuming federal agencies play along -- and water to start flowing the 250-mile distance between White Pine County and Las Vegas by 2015.

For Las Vegas, the new water can't come soon enough. If the seven-year Western drought persists -- and experts fear it will -- the Colorado River will be severely tested in the next few years. Nevada is entitled to 300,000 acre-feet per year from the river, but if the river's flow continues to drop, Nevada, along with Arizona and California, could take a hit.

That could bludgeon the economy here, which, for better or worse, depends heavily on growth. As much as some old-timers regret that the world has discovered the small town they once knew, the fact is that growth has made this town from the beginning and will continue to be our dominant trait for decades to come. Good luck finding a slow-growth movement to join in these parts.

The state engineer earned his salary putting together his ruling, but let's not forget that another government appointee, Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager Pat Mulroy, also notched a major victory here -- certainly not her first in the public arena and likely not her last.

Mulroy is widely considered the most astute person in Southern Nevada government, and this ruling validates the perception. While many local and state elected officials clown around with trendy partisan crap, Mulroy has remained focused on two vitally important issues: securing new water resources and enacting aggressive water conservation measures.

Not all that long ago, Las Vegas was the laughingstock of the West for its profligate water use. The green felt of the casinos was dwarfed by the green lawns of our neighborhoods.

Mulroy has led something akin to a revolution in thinking here, with many people gaining an appreciation for the aesthetic potential and environmental merits of the xeriscaped yard.

But with vast political capital at her disposal, Mulroy should do even more in terms of water conservation. Las Vegas has made significant strides, but tens of thousands of homeowners here insist on wasting precious water to maintain sprawling lawns they do not use. Dealing with these stubborn holdouts may require more controversial measures, but it would be hypocritical and shortsighted of Las Vegas to grab rural water in order to nurture suburban lawns.

Also, Mulroy and her successors soon must embark on a search for more new water resources. White Pine wells aren't going to be enough to slake the thirst of the Las Vegas Valley as its population races toward 3 million.

In the meantime, this much is clear: History books will ignore the noxious partisanship of Republican and Democratic politicians in Carson City. Gov. Jim Gibbons has, in just a few months, shown that he is incapable of leadership and destined to be a footnote.

But history is not likely to forget the important works of government appointees Pat Mulroy and Tracy Taylor.

As for White Pine County, I have two pieces of unsolicited advice. First, keep a vigilant eye on this pipeline project. If monitoring programs show that the pumping is damaging the environment, raise holy hell. And second, look for a way to turn the pipeline into a tourist attraction.

It'll beat the heck out of the world's largest ball of twine.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is Stephens Media's director of community publications. He is the author of "Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas" and, coming in October, "Politics, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue: The Las Vegas Years of Howard Hughes." His column appears Sunday.