WASHINGTON — Southern Nevada’s top water official warned federal policymakers today that they underestimate climate change at their own risk as they consider ways to bolster the nation’s infrastructure.
“We need to understand where the floods are going to occur and where the drought conditions are going to be protracted before we start making long-term investments,” said Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
In the short term, fixing long-neglected bridges, roads and water and sewer systems is fine, Mulroy said. But beyond that, she said, “We need to look at (infrastructure) through a 21st century lens in a very different climate and not take a 19th century climate and assume that is going to be the norm.”
“We have not spent any time in this country investing in the science of climate change in any kind of concerted action,” she said. “We have not spent time talking about how we are going to adapt.”
Mulroy, who directs the agency that supplies most of the water in Clark County, sounded the alarm as part of a panel assembled by the Brookings Institution to discuss infrastructure and recommendations for President-elect Barack Obama to pursue in his economic stimulus strategy and beyond.
Investments in infrastructure create jobs as well as shore up the physical foundations of the nation, but panelists said the ways such projects are weighed and funded are grossly inefficient.
The audience of several hundred at the think tank grew silent at Mulroy’s striking predictions. She said Southern California “is very much facing the real possibility of having a major water crisis in 2010,” and that three more years of drought along the Colorado River will cost Southern Nevada 40 percent of its water supply.
“Two more years after that, we lose 90 percent of our water supply,” if the drought persists over the longer period, she said, referring Lake Mead levels dropping beneath the intake pipes that draw water for municipal use.
Professional water managers recognize climate change “could destroy the very underpinnings of every economy of the United States, whether it is dikes that are going to break from rising ocean levels to whether it is wastewater or water treatment plants that are situated on the banks of rivers that can be flooded out, to if it is in the West from the most dire and desperate drought that we have ever experienced.”
Mulroy said she was hopeful at the appointment of former EPA administrator Carol Browner to become the global warming coordinator in the Obama White House. While federal science agencies now compete for climate change funding, there might be some coordination in the new administration.
“Once that science gets going and we get a better understanding of the true impacts of climate change, then we can look at the most at-risk situations, whether it is the dikes in California, whether it is the potential of losing a significant part of Florida, whether it is the protracted droughts that are gong to wipe out whole economies, and what are the possible solutions,” she said.
Policymakers will need to become creative, even “outrageous,” Mulroy said. For instance, she suggested that floodwaters from the Mississippi River might be diverted west for drought prevention.
“Why can’t floodwaters in one part of the country, through a series of exchanges, be a water supply in another part of the country?” she said. “I could show you a series of exchanges between the Mississippi and California and you could start fixing some problems.
“When it comes to watersheds and water supplies, we are all interconnected,” she said.
Contact Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760.