Exit interview: Mulroy talks about her life as Las Vegas’ water chief
As she prepared to leave the organization she built, water czar Pat Mulroy sat down with the Review-Journal for a wide-ranging, two-hour talk about her legacy and the future of water in Southern Nevada.
February 1, 2014 - 11:30 pm
For a quarter century, Pat Mulroy kept water flowing to the nation’s driest city.
Her work to stretch and supplement Nevada’s meager share of the Colorado River helped fuel the explosive growth of the Las Vegas Valley, which saw its population triple during her time as water chief.
In the process, she earned a reputation as a clever tactician and a tough, sometimes brash negotiator. She also cultivated numerous critics and a few outright enemies, who accused her of arrogance, empire building and worse for her single-minded pursuit of more water at almost any cost.
Her rise was as unlikely as it was quick. Born in Germany to an American father and German mother, Mulroy was lured to Las Vegas from Munich by a college scholarship in 1974. She got her bachelor’s degree from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, then stayed on to earn her master’s in German literature.
She dreamed then of a doctorate from Stanford and maybe career as a diplomat, but the money ran out so she went to work for Clark County in 1978 at the age of 25.
Seven years later, she was named deputy general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District. Four years after that, she became the first woman to lead the valley’s largest water utility.
One of her first acts was a massive water grab — some called it a surprise attack — that targeted virtually all of the unappropriated groundwater within 400 miles of Las Vegas for a controversial pipeline now expected to cost billions of dollars, if it’s ever built.
Mulroy consolidated her power in 1991, when she quelled bitter competition among the valley’s water utilities and brought them together under a new regional agency that soon became the state’s principal voice on the Colorado River.
In the 22 years since the Southern Nevada Water Authority was created, with Mulroy as its first and so far only general manager, the community and its guests have enjoyed an uninterrupted supply of 3.36 trillion gallons of water, enough to fill 168 million backyard swimming pools.
Thursday will be Mulroy’s last day on the job.
As she prepared to leave the organization she built, she sat down with the Review-Journal for a wide-ranging, two-hour talk about her legacy and the future of water in Southern Nevada. This is an edited transcript of the full conversation.
R-J: They call you the water czar. Any idea where that title came from, and what do you think of it?
Mulroy: Well, it beats water witch. That’s what it used to be. In the ′90s it was water witch. It was hilarious. Staff gave me a broom.
I don’t know who coined the phrase (water czar), but it’s always made me kind of feel uncomfortable because it just sounds pompous. I never cared for it. I thought the water witch was pretty funny.
Any idea where that came from?
Oh yeah. That came out of Arizona.
Anyone in particular in Arizona?
No. Just generally Arizona. Relations weren’t the greatest back then.
What was going on at the time?
Well, we here in Nevada had figured out we were going to run out of water. And in those days we were naive enough to think we were going to go out and really cause a ruckus, as we did. We said some snarky things, so then the adage got coined that I was the water witch.
I’ve heard several stories about times when people underestimated you or dismissed you because you are a woman. Does that still happen to you, and has there been a change over the years in how you deal with it?
Well, the way I respond to it really hasn’t changed any. My usual response is just to ignore it. And it’s very, very rare I experience it, and it’s usually in venues where I’ve never met people before. Or, this one’s funny: We got a call from someone. I was out shopping this weekend and our phone rang at home, and Bob (her husband) answered the phone. It was someone who wanted to talk to me about water. This was Sunday. I was at the grocery store. So the guy asks Bob, he says, “So does she know anything?” Obviously if I was a male Pat Mulroy, that question wouldn’t have been asked. So it’s still out there, but it’s not as prevalent as it used to be.
Because your reputation precedes you now maybe?
Maybe that’s it.
I remember (then-Clark County Commissioner) Jay Bingham didn’t vote for me (to head up the water district) — and then apologized for the next nine years for it — because he said on the dais he didn’t think I was tough enough. It was a different world back then.
Do you think your gender has offered you any advantages in this job?
I think it has. I can get away with kidding to break ice in a way that a man probably can’t. I can make fun of myself and make others feel a little uncomfortable, which I’ve never seen a man really do.
What do you mean?
Well, if I want to point out something negative, I will point the finger at myself and talk about my own flaws, which is something I haven’t really seen men do. I’m pretty comfortable with doing that. And I think at some level — if you want to think a little bit more deviously — people underestimate you, and sometimes being underestimated is an advantage. It is.
You were Clark County’s first ever justice court administrator before you joined the water district as deputy general manager in 1985. At the time, how much did you know about the science and the politics of water here and in the Southwest generally?
Very little. I came over to be the head of administration, so I had all those traditional administrative roles — oversight of finance, public relations, customer service — which can be pretty ubiquitous across various organizations. In those days we all thought we had a limitless supply. Resources were not an issue. I mean, this is 1985. In 1982, the Bureau of Reclamation opened the second stage of the Southern Nevada Water System. There was a big dedication ceremony. I went to it. And the big speech then was that Southern Nevada had enough water until 2025. So in my 20s brain, I said, “Well heck, that means that during my tenure here, water resources aren’t going to be an issue.”
I didn’t know anything about it, and nobody in those days considered it an issue.
That was the beginning of the growth spiral. It wasn’t until 1987, ′88 that the valley began to figure out that they were going to run out of water. Because consumption was jumping by 17 percent, so that’s when things got really ugly.
You said the Bureau of Reclamation held that dedication ceremony?
Yeah, the Southern Nevada Water System was federally funded, thanks to (then-U.S. Sen.) Howard Cannon, and the Bureau of Reclamation was the contractor. They built the facilities. Then back in the ′90s, we tried to extricate ourselves from the bureau because it got to be ridiculous — I mean here we sit in an ever-growing Southern Nevada and there were major transmission lines owned by the federal government. So we bought them out and paid off our federal debt to where our facilities don’t have a dime of federal money in them, which makes it very unique, especially in the West.
Do you recall the moment when you really took an interest in water?
It started as a community concern. The acrimony amongst the various water agencies was extreme, and my predecessor was scrambling, trying to figure out where water was going to come from in order to keep the economy going and the community going. And unfortunately, that acrimonious environment caused his (professional) demise. So in ′89, when I got the job, the first thing I had to do was go and apologize. I’ll never forget, my first visit was to Phil Speight (then Henderson’s newly appointed city manager, now deputy general manager for the water authority and the district), and I apologized profusely for everything that we’d been doing and the level of acrimony that had been caused.
But it was during when that really started escalating that the reality of Southern Nevada’s water situation really came to the fore. And then when I took the job, staff was coming to me and we were laying out the will-serve letters and how much we had committed against what our consumption patterns were and what we had available from the lake. We knew we had a huge deficit, so the first thing we did was file on all that in-state water.
The state had said there is an unbelievable supply of water out there. So knowing that if we said anything before we filed there would be — how do I put this? — any number of entrepreneurs who would have filed in front of us only to turn around and sell it to us, we just did all the paperwork, pulled it all together and just did a blanket filing knowing we’d be letting go of a lot of it over time. But we had to put some other source of water out there, because there was enough noise around it that it was starting to have an economic impact. The businesses, hotels, resorts were starting to get worried, worried about investing in Southern Nevada.
So then in 1990, the reality hit us that we had committed way more water than we had, and after long meetings with our attorney and the district attorney’s office the conclusion was, “You are really hanging the organization’s liability out there; you’ve got to stop.” So I’ll never forget it, Valentine’s Day 1990 we declared a moratorium. No more will-serve letters, no more commitments.
Now there was plenty in the pipeline, so from the construction and building side you weren’t going to feel it for a while. When we finally opened the doors again when the authority was created, they were beginning to feel it at the financing end, but you felt nothing in terms of the construction end. That’s why it’s still called the Valentine’s Day Massacre.
What do you think your legacy is going to be?
Oh my heavens. Probably that the team we brought together was able to keep this community with a reliable water resource and facilities. Nobody ever was slowed down, hampered or in anyway obstructed from building wherever they wanted to build in the valley, and that was a Herculean effort. We kept this valley going during its most phenomenal growth spurt. I mean when I started, the valley had less than 600,000 people in it. Today it has 2 million. The change has been unbelievable in 25 years. And when people down the road look back, they’ll say that this team was able to keep that going.
We’ll get into that a bit more later, but that’s also been used to bludgeon you by some people.
I accepted a long time ago that everything we do will always have its supporters and its detractors. This is much too volatile an arena, and people have some real skewed misperceptions.
If you had asked me that question in a different way — What am I proudest of? — I am proudest probably of all the agreements we were able to forge on the (Colorado River), and the change that we were able to bring about in river law and river relations that are really going to serve this community well in the future. That’s what, in my mind, is really critically important.
Is that what you’d like to be remembered for?
That is exactly what I’d like to be remembered for because I think it’s going to be really foundational. I mean look at Lake Mead (now), and it’s going to go down some more. And then imagine what California’s condition is right now. They’re in the worst state drought of their history. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California takes half of its water from the Bay Delta, which is from the Sierras, and half from the Colorado. We know they are going to lean heavily on the Colorado River this year.
Well, I’m really happy that the relationships that we’ve forged with California and with the other partners are such that that won’t be a cause of acrimony, that we’re going to be able to work our way through it. Because the challenges are only going to get more daunting.
Was it hard early on to get anyone on the river to listen to little old Nevada?
It was at first. At first they laughed. And then we did some outrageous things, and they stopped laughing. Sometimes you have to get outrageous for people to sit up and pay attention.
Well, we put ads in the Denver Post that we were going to buy water in the state of Colorado. It was hilarious. It was right after the water authority was created and the Legislature had then changed the composition of the Colorado River Commission to include three of the authority’s board members, so it was in the mid-‘90s, and we got pretty persnickety.
And you know what else was really helpful and actually kind of funny? When we filed for the in-state project, the rural counties hired (former Arizona Gov.) Bruce Babbitt (to represent them). And then when Bruce became Clinton’s secretary of Interior, he made a commitment to then Gov. Bob Miller that in lieu of building the in-state project he would fix Nevada’s problems on the river. So the double punch with us now being able to speak as a united front and not being torn internally and Bruce pushing from the other side, from D.C., that’s when things started to change and that’s when people started taking us seriously.
Did Babbitt make good on his promise to fix Nevada’s problems on the river?
The week before he left office, we signed the Interim Surplus Guidelines, and that was when I took a resource plan to the board with a 50-year supply from the Colorado River. We were able to overuse Lake Mead as long as it was above a certain elevation, and in those days there was zero probability that we would have a drought like the one we’ve been living through. And we had our first (water) banking arrangement with Arizona, and if you had asked any of us at that time, we knew that this would just open the door to future arrangements with other states. I was easily envisioning desalters in California and exchanging water that way, because as along as the river is stable that’s a no-brainer. So we were feeling pretty comfortable and pretty secure.
What were you trying to accomplish with those ads in the Denver Post?
To wake Colorado up, that Nevada was going to be such a problem that Nevada’s problem had to be fixed.
What did the ads say?
They simply said the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the Colorado River Commission are interested in talking to anyone who has a water supply from the Colorado River that can be moved through the river. I mean we were going right for the juggernaut of the law. And we had hearings. We rented a big room at Cashman Center, and the CRC and the SNWA boards sat together, and people came in offering up their water, describing the water, giving us proposals. The Colorado representatives were ashen white in the back of the room.
And if I was Colorado, sitting here today, I would have felt the same way. Absolutely. Because I could see my whole water supply being sold downstream.
That was the trigger that actually got the 2000 agreement signed, the interim surplus signed. Everyone at that point got really serious that something had to happen. California had to be given a soft landing so it could wean itself from its overuse, and Nevada had to be given access to additional supplies.
What’s your biggest regret?
You know what? It’s something very recent: that whole disaster of 2012, when we had to raise rates overnight. It was the first time we had done it without … a citizen’s process, and there was no option; we had no choice but to do it, because we had to sell the 300 million (dollars) in bonds. That will always be a huge regret of mine. Not having started it sooner. As much as we tried to reach out, you know I didn’t do a very good job, and I’ll take full responsibility for it. I never blamed the business community for their reaction. We were in panic mode. My CFO had died unexpectedly, and I had total chaos going over here. I knew we had to go to the street and I knew we had to sell $300 million, but I can’t help but feel I could have done a much better job of it. I will always regret how it was done.
According to many of your critics, you have spent your career literally carrying water for developers and unchecked growth. The knock against you is that you never stood up and said we don’t have enough water and we can’t grow anymore. Why didn’t you do that?
Because once land is in private ownership, the body of law that protects the private landowner is immense. And our laws are pretty clear. We can’t selectively say, “Oh we like you, we’ll give you water, but we don’t like you and we’re not going to give you water.” When you say you have no water, it is across the board. So who is growth? Is it my kids who want to buy a house? Is it the next business that comes to town that wants to provide jobs for the community? I mean we as a human race are expanding. Why would it not happen here?
It’s not a realistic thing. It’s about land. There’s one community that successfully limits growth, and that’s Boulder City. Why? They own every square inch of land, and they only release it for development as they see fit.
You can’t control growth through your utilities.
It’s not your job.
That too. It’s not. Why me? Go talk to the governor. Go talk to the elected officials. You know? I’m willing to be the bad guy on any number of things, but there are some things I’m not willing to be the bad guy on.
We’ve always come at it from, “OK, if this is where you want to be, this is what you’re going to have to do to get there.” That’s our job. You want this community to grow and you want it to prosper. All right, then you’re going to have to pay to build facilities to bring in additional water, you’re going to have to start using less per capita to stretch what you have and you’re going to have to actively get into long-term resource planning. If you’re willing to do those things, then you can have what you want.
How much do you think water should cost, and do you think we’re paying enough for our water now?
See, I’ve always hated this discussion, because the economists will tell you that we don’t pay enough for water. I will push back on that because I think it’s a little more complex than that. There is an enormous difference between oil and water or even power and water. I mean human life has survived on this planet for how many thousands of years and there was no electricity and there was no oil and there was no gas. But they’ve never been able to survive without water. It is essential for life. And I am a big believer that when you pay your water bill, you’re not paying for the resource. What you’re paying for is having it treated and pumped to your home so that it’s readily available to you. You’re paying for the facilities. And I will always believe that you should never charge more than you actually have to in order to deliver safe, reliable water to your customers when they need it.
Even under a scenario where up to three-quarters of the water is not used indoors, it’s actually going outside and being used on landscaping?
Well that’s why the tiered rate structure. That’s a tool. That’s a tool to wake people up that there’s a category of water that’s considered waste. Communities, especially around the West, have tried so many different methods of approaching this.
I think that using your pricing structure to send appropriate signals is a good thing. But we have full cost recovery. To have that kind of cost recovery inflated by some commodity price? I think you would get the ugliest reaction you’ve ever seen in your life.
What was the conservation ethic like when you took over at the water district?
There wasn’t one. It was the exact opposite. It was, “We want to sell as much as we can.” There’s still places in this country that work on the same premise because for them it’s revenue. They don’t have a resource shortage, so they just see it as a revenue opportunity. And city councils everywhere in the United States dip into their water and wastewater funds. That’s how they started. That’s why they’re mostly departments in cities. They’re revenue sources, and that’s why the general public has the skewed perspective that a water rate is a tax but your power bill is a utility bill. It’s a difference of who owns it.
How hard was it to foster conservation where there was none before?
You know it actually wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I think the fact that we didn’t just charge people more — we gave them the financial tools to make the changes they needed to make — went a long way.
I think there was a generational shift, and I think people were ready for it. And it gave them an opportunity to lower their water bill. I think we pushed too far on that end, because as we discussed earlier what you’re really paying for is for the facilities, not the resource. But it was one of the tools in the quiver.
Once we got past the fountains issue, it got a lot easier. Fountains were brutal. I completely didn’t see that one coming, that people would get that passionate about having a fountain in front of a bank building and in front of a grocery store or in a business park or the HOAs that have water features. That one lost me.
You said you think you pushed too hard on cutting water use. What do you mean?
We loaded too much of costs into conservation where now that it’s been successful we still have the same debt service. And that debt service is going to be the same whether we sell a thousand gallons or we sell a million gallons, so we’re having to go back and “reward” customers constantly by raising their bills.
And it’s happening everywhere in the United States. I can’t tell you how many of my peers are going through the exact same community discussions. Because you are not paying for the water itself. You are paying for very expensive infrastructure that delivers it to you.
That’s my favorite response to somebody who yells at me that water is a basic human right. I say, “You’re right. Here’s your bucket. Go down to Lake Mead and knock yourself out. Take as much as you want.” What you don’t have a basic right to is that somebody treats it to a standard that assures your health and delivers it to your house to where when you turn the tap on it comes out. If the postman delivers you a letter, somebody’s paid for the postage. Everything you have delivered to the house costs something. Why should this not cost you something?
How much further can the current incentive-based conservation measures go?
As long as we end every single year having more people come to us wanting to remove grass than we have money for and we have to roll people into the following year, we’re not there yet. I think there’s still lots of opportunity.
You get knocked around a lot for not incorporating indoor water use into your conservation programs. But even if all the water that goes down our drains is sent back to Lake Mead and recycled, shouldn’t we still try to use less of it?
That was the fountain issue. Because at the end of the day, not even the fountains used that much water. It’s a perception issue, and people aren’t going to be regulated in order to avert perceptions. They are just not going to put up with it.
It doesn’t do anything, and none of us could stand up straight-faced and say that it would.
The plumbing code in the nation and in Nevada is changing anyway. I mean technology and fixtures are taking care of the problem, so why would you want to burden the ratepayer with an incentive that the private sector is already taking care of as they’re developing more efficient shower heads, more efficient toilets?
The rural Nevada pipeline project has been with you your entire career here.
Was there ever a time when you considered killing it?
Absolutely, 2000. And staff rightfully convinced me that killing it was not a good idea. It needed to stay in the portfolio. We could stop being active around it and spending money around it, but we needed to leave our filings in place, just in case.
Why did you want to kill it?
Because I really believed we would solve Nevada’s water needs from the river — or by using the river as a conduit for desalt or other joint projects — for a very long time. I mean if we didn’t have this drought, we never would have started kick-starting that in-state project again. When I took this job and we filed for the water rights, I always said Southern Nevada has two choices: It has to either get additional resources off the Colorado River or it has to go in state. There is no third alternative for us. Just based on geography. Something had to give, and at first it appeared the Colorado River was going to be the solution. The rest is history. Along came the drought.
At potentially $15 billion …
You love that number, don’t you?
Well, I have reported different numbers over the years, certainly, but how can the community and the ratepayers afford a project like this?
When that day comes, when that discussion has to happen, that river is going to be in crisis. And the question this community will be asking itself won’t be whether they can afford it but can they afford not to. Because the trade-offs will be pretty dramatic. That means every single possible avenue on that river will have been explored.
And that’s where all our energy is. All our energy is around not having to build that project. But knowing that if we took it out of the resource plan now and it wasn’t a viable project, you’d have economic disaster down here.
That’s why I keep leaning on the Colorado River, because if that system as a whole can be stabilized — and that system as a whole can start thinking systemically as a whole river community, and look at its aggregate water resources, and thereby provide additional resources for Southern Nevada — then the in-state project isn’t necessary.
Nothing would have delighted me more than to let go of it.
You’ve heard this way more than I have, and I’ve heard it a lot, but anytime the in-state water project comes up the Owens Valley comparison is made.
Have you traveled to Owens Valley?
And what did you think when you saw it?
Owens Valley is one of the prettiest valleys you’ve ever seen. It’s a nature preserve is really what it is now.
It was never (about) Owens Valley, it was Mono Lake. And what happened was they drained the entire lake and created the dust problem. It wasn’t the groundwater pumping that caused the dust. It was the elimination of a surface water supply essentially. That’s where the problem came in.
And it was an (agriculture)-urban tug-of-war. If you talk to L.A., they went into Owens Valley and they bought the water. They did. They paid the farmer for the water, which was the straight-line approach that existed in those days. Now they didn’t know somebody was going to steal that money from the farmers eventually. But it became this loss of family heritage around agriculture. They sold the water and then bemoaned the fact that there was no more agriculture in the valley.
It is not an environmental disaster area by any stretch of the imagination. I would have greater environmental concerns about the Salton Sea than I would about Owens Valley.
When it comes to the pipeline, do think there will come a day when the people of rural Nevada will trust the Southern Nevada Water Authority? And should they?
No, I do not think they will ever trust us, and if I were in their shoes I’m not sure I would either. I think there is another structure that will have to emerge that gives them a greater feeling of trust but verify, that they have the ability to make sure that those impacts don’t happen. Trust? I’m not sure we’ll see trust at that level, but I think we can find a way to coexist where they don’t feel we’re simply taking things away from them willy-nilly as we would want to.
The other big concern raised with the project is that it won’t stop there. You build the pipeline and down the road Las Vegas needs more water, so the pipeline gets pushed farther north or west or whatever. Do you think that’s a possibility some day?
I think that’s a straight-line assumption. Look, I talked about it earlier when I talked about thinking about systems. The Colorado River system is a pretty diverse system. It reaches over into the Platte and the Arkansas through the Front Range uses. It reaches into the Great Basin, because the Colorado River comes into the Great Basin when it comes into Salt Lake. It goes into the Rio. It goes into the central Phoenix cities. It goes into Southern California, (and) that’s tied to Northern California. I think what you’re going to see is a very adaptive plan that wraps its arms around a much larger watershed where water moves around more freely. And if this pocket of the watershed is having a problem at that time, the larger system can back it up. I see a much more fluid environment. The day will come when the ranchers and the small communities in rural Nevada are going to need help with water resources. Whether it’s growth-driven or drought-driven is pretty irrelevant. What they haven’t realized yet is that no one community can do it on its own. If Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, with 20 million people, can’t do it on its own, a small rural community can’t either. They’re going to need partners. They’re going to need help. They’re going to need us to back off. We’re going to have to help them have a water supply as well. That’s what I see. I see a very different reality out there.
Are you saying that Southern Nevada might actually provide water to them in times of need?
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Let’s assume you have a bad drought in the Great Basin, a smaller regional drought, and there was plenty of snowfall in Wyoming and Colorado, and we’ve done enough storage in banking and off-system storage that we could actually take out groundwater rights and move them to a rural community. We will have recharged that basin, we will have kept that basin healthy and we will be a backup supply for those rural communities. I think that’s where the future is. Because what they’re envisioning is a 19th century confrontation, and that’s not where the future is.
Even if state water law allows it, do you think it is morally right for the water authority to go up to a place like White Pine County’s Spring Valley and pump so much water that it changes what kinds of plants grow there?
Like they’re doing now? The biggest cause of dust in the Great Basin — and people are going to scream when I say it — is cattle ranching. It is the devegetation from cattle ranching.
Look, you can’t take water from anywhere without having some impact. It’s what level of impact. Taking water from the Colorado River has an impact. Taking water from our groundwater basin has an impact. It’s how do you artificially recharge, how do you manage the basin.
There’s going to be an impact. Cities cannot, rural communities cannot, ranchers cannot take water from a source without having some kind of impact. That impact range is very broad. Where on that continuum will it fall, and what are we willing to say is an acceptable impact and what is an unacceptable impact.
(White Pine County rancher and pipeline opponent) Dean Baker will tell you himself that he has caused any number of springs to dry up, any number of habitats to be destroyed. So what are the habitats that we feel, as a larger state and a larger Western community, need to be protected and how do we protect them?
Water can’t come from anywhere, not even from the ocean, without an impact. So to say we want zero impact is not possible. It’s not possible.
That is an argument Dean Baker likes to make a lot …
Well, then let’s wipe out all groundwater rights in the state of Nevada.
I think the point he makes when he brings that up is, “I’m doing damage myself, and the water authority wants to come in here and pump a great deal more water, so their damage will be significantly worse.”
And Dean Baker does no artificial recharge. He pumps the same amount from his well every single year. He doesn’t manage it with other resources available. It’s not going to be a steady stream of water coming in from there. If there’s ample water on the Colorado River, we’ll be bringing it in from the Colorado River. It’s a balancing. Well areas will be allowed to rest. You move your pumping around. He has neither the land mass nor the financial resources to be able to manage that groundwater basin in the way we’re envisioning managing it. So I understand what he’s saying, but his perspective is skewed.
Let’s turn to the Colorado River. What do you think the future is going to look like for the river and its users?
I think the biggest threat for the river community right now is the pace at which the drought is deepening. It’s not the fact that we’re in a drought. It’s the rate of the degradation of the water supply, because it makes it very difficult to adjust to it. I think you’re going to see some efforts to store more water in Lake Mead. Maybe even the upper basin will store water in Lake Powell to protect power deliveries and power supplies, because it’s a huge revenue source for them.
And I think that will be the first step. I think the lower basin states will have to take responsibility for Mead and the upper basin states will have to take responsibility for Powell.
It’s no different than the groundwater recharge that we do. You put the water there today in order to bring it back and recover it and restore it. If we have a good, wet year, leave it in the reservoir. Don’t move it out of the reservoir.
We always had this regimen where if the reservoir got healthy you could overuse. I think that overuse concept is gone.
I think you’re going to see a closer relationship with Mexico. I think you’ll start seeing desalters, probably in Mexico first. I think you’ll see us being able to utilize water from those desalters, but not under drought conditions, and that’s where Southern Nevada has to back itself up however they can.
I think you’ll see the river community start really spending (on things) that will have no direct benefit to community X but will benefit the system. Those will be very difficult conversations for us to have with ratepayers, but I think they’re critical. And it will evolve. It will adapt as conditions change.
And then I think there is a larger conversation that’s ultimately going to have to happen. Once we stop thinking in terms of districts, communities and states and start thinking we are citizens of a larger region, then we can start looking at how regions interconnect with each other. Does that provide any opportunities for us? Does it provide opportunities for them? Are there opportunities for mutual problem solving?
I think that is going to absolutely have to happen at some point.
The so-called “Law of the River” reminds me of the Ark of the Covenant from the Indiana Jones movie: basically an old and very precious artifact that no one should ever be allowed to open.
And doesn’t have to be. Like all laws, it’s flexible. What it does at its essence is, seven states can do whatever seven states can agree to do, but no one state, no matter how big and how populated it is, can roll its neighbors. It takes it out of the presidential race. It takes it out of the senatorial races. It takes it out of the body politic and creates a level playing field. That’s all it really does.
There are ways that you can work within it that let you do all the things you need to do while protecting those that would otherwise feel threatened.
So it doesn’t matter that the law divvies up water among the states in amounts the river can’t seem to supply?
That water is not there. The 20th century was one of the wettest centuries in 1,200 years, so you’ve got 20th century hydrology matched with a 20th century compact that assumes that hydrology, and we have a 21st century real water supply. If you include evaporation and the Mexican treaty, you’ve got a total use of 18 and a half million (acre-feet). You’re really looking at (a supply of) closer to 12 million, 11 or 12, and that’s a moderate number. There are some who would say it’s even less than that. You’re talking about a deficit, so why would you want to change a foundational document that establishes a relationship? Because everyone is going to have to give up water, and it requires seven legislatures to approve it, seven governors to sign it, Congress to approve it and the president to sign it. And everybody has to give something up. Why go through the pain if you don’t have to? Think about how long that’s going to take, and at the end of the day, are you really going to be in a better place than you would be if you just worked within its parameters and use it as a foundational document? I don’t think so.
Wouldn’t Nevada be in a better place?
Why? You’re going to have to give up water too. Why would you be the only state to not give up water? Because of the immensity of our delegation?
No, because we got so little to begin with.
Oh every state’s got its own story to tell. Every state has its own story to tell. California is the food basket for the country. Arizona is part of the food basket. The water all comes from the upper basin. It’s within their geography. You tell me what state, I’ll tell you their story. So yes, we didn’t have any agriculture (when the river was divvied up). We asked for 300,000 (acre-feet). We got what we asked for. So, what? Now we say, “Oh, we changed our mind”? Well everybody is going to change their mind.
Some people use that as an argument to do just that. They say that in addition to the compact being based on 20th century hydrology, the basin doesn’t look the same anymore …
That’s right. Absolutely. So everybody’s going to have to give something up. Tell me who gets re-elected giving up the state’s birthright. And what have you accomplished at the end of the day? The number you come up with may be wrong again. Aren’t you better off managing the system recognizing you have less to work with? I don’t care what you call it, but manage the system with having less water, and then forget what the compact says. Forget it. It doesn’t matter.
Well it kind of does, doesn’t it? You’re managing the system right now …
But not from compact numbers. We’re managing it from real hydrology as it occurs year to year and real reservoir elevations.
But California still gets their allotment, and Arizona still gets their allotment, and …
But what they’ve been doing is leaving it behind in Lake Mead. And Nevada gets its allotment, and we leave it behind in Lake Mead. It’s a paper number.
How much is California leaving in the lake?
Last year they probably left 300,000 acre-feet behind, if not more.
But doesn’t California need all the water it can get? Why are they doing it?
Because they know the system can’t crash. It’s in their best interests for the system not to crash.
So they’re doing it for Nevada, to protect the lake level and our ability to draw water from it?
See? There you go. We’ve got to stop thinking state to state. It’s the same thing that happened when we created the authority. It doesn’t matter if the individual benefit really gets up to what the other guy gets. It’s, does the system survive? If the system survives, then everybody survives. If the system crashes, trust me, there will be no one that’s not affected.
We’ve heard a lot of really radical ideas over the years for how to supplement the Colorado River. You’ve pitched a few of them yourself. Which ones seem most likely to happen some day?
I think that given the volatility of what’s happening on the Mississippi system, the Corps of Engineers is going to have to rethink flood control. Look, it’s not just us. You talk to Gov. Brownback in Kansas. There are pockets in the Ogallala Aquifer that have maybe 15 or 20 years left in them. He’ll have whole farming communities wiped out. Why aren’t we recharging it? Why are we just letting (Mississippi River floodwater) go as waste into an ocean we’re worried about rising too much? Why are we not thinking about how do we divert that, get it into a groundwater basin? I mean my friends in New Orleans say take it now, get it out. So start thinking about it in a larger context. If we in the water community can’t do it, I don’t know who can.
What’s the first thing you think will happen? You mentioned desalting plants in Mexico …
I think that one is ready to pop.
And Nevada will own a stake in one?
I think the lower basin will do it collectively. I think that’s next.
After 25 years on the job, what advice do you have for future leaders of the Southern Nevada Water Authority?
Look for solutions of mutual benefit. Do not start confrontations. Do not go to court. Do not pick fights you don’t need. Listen to what the needs of the others are so that you understand them. Do as much listening as you do talking. And always remember that if the system crashes, there will not be a winner left standing. Everyone will go down. There won’t be winners and losers. Those days are over.
That’s my advice.
What are you going to miss about this job?
I’m going to miss the people. I’m going to miss the challenges, and I’m going to miss the people. For me the sadness is all around the human aspect of this. That will be hard.
What won’t you miss?
I’ve become absolutely numb to the attacks and the beatings and the ugliness that circles around no matter who sits in this chair. It doesn’t matter who you are, you’re going to get attacked — for general sport if for no other reason. Because there’s nothing you can do in this field that isn’t going to be controversial. Everything is going to be controversial. That I won’t miss.
I don’t read good news or bad news. I’ll read the entire paper except the stories around water.
Did you read them before?
I used to read them, and I got an ulcer and I went, “I’m not reading this anymore.”
When did that happen?
Oh, when the drought started. I just stopped reading them. I don’t want to read the good stuff, I don’t want to read the bad stuff. You can really lose perspective in one of two ways: You can start believing everything good that’s been said about you and internalize that, or you can take everything that’s ugly and take it to heart.
I think anybody that’s in a CEO position, if they’re completely honest, they know where they made mistakes, they know what they would have done differently, and they know what they’re proud to have accomplished.
What made you decide now is the time to leave?
I turned 60. It’s really easy. I turned 60 and at the same time I had 25 years in this job. I’m not done working, but I’m ready to do something else. I really am ready to do something else.
You know I took a job 25 years ago and found a passion. And I really believe that water is going to be … a huge cause of concern and discussion and change in the 21st century. I really believe that. Do the simple math: You add 2 billion more people to this planet, what are you going to do? How are you going to grow the food? Where’s it going to come from?
So what are you going to do next?
I don’t know yet. I’ve got to catch my breath first. I’m going to decompress for a couple of months first. I’ve already got speaking engagements out there, but whatever.
They still want you to speak when you’re unemployed?
Yeah, they do. They actually do. Foolish people.
You know, lots of people have already decided what you’re going to do next. I’ve heard several rumors and theories so far.
Oh, I’m sure lots of people have thought of lots of things for me to do. I’ve heard some very interesting ideas. One of the ones I just can’t stop laughing at is running for office. The N and the O can’t be big enough and loud enough and more emphatic. I have never filed for office. No, no, no.
I’m going to stay true to what I’ve given my life to and what I’ve worked on for so long and really try to make an impact in that area. At some level — and I haven’t figured out where or how I’m going to do it yet — I want to get involved in the larger, international cause of helping underdeveloped, poorer areas of the world gain access to safe drinking water. That I do want to do.
Are you going to go back to lobbying? That’s one of the rumors I’ve heard.
Oh God, no. Lobbying? No thank you. They’re safe. The Legislature is safe from me.
Well I am going to open an LLC, just in order to have options. I don’t know what I’m going to do with that LLC, but I’m going to open one.
Does it have a name yet?
No, it has no name. Got any ideas?
How about Water Witch?
There you go. Witches Incorporated. Witches and Associates.
Contact reporter Henry Brean at email@example.com and 702-383-0350. Follow him on Twitter at @RefriedBrean.