How did we get here?
Construction takes place at the base of Hoover Dam. (UNLV Special Collections)

PART 2: A future no one could see capped Nevada’s share of Colorado River water


hen representatives from seven Western states met in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to divvy up the Colorado River in 1922, Las Vegas was a dusty railroad stop with fewer than 2,500 residents.

No one could have imagined this isolated desert community would one day become an international destination with more than 2 million residents and 40 million annual visitors.

No one thought Nevada would ever need more water than it eventually got from those early Colorado River negotiations.

“It strikes me as a forgivable failure of imagination,” said historian Christian Harrison, who earned his doctorate from UNLV. “They probably thought they would land people on Mars before we had so many people living in this valley.”

The concessions Nevada made at those negotiations in New Mexico almost a century ago now threaten to limit future growth in the state’s largest community, where 90 percent of the water supply comes from a river teetering on the brink of shortage.

Nevada and the other six states that rely on the river for water face a federal deadline of March 19 to submit plans to voluntarily reduce their use ahead of an unprecedented shortage declaration that could come later this year and bring additional, mandatory cuts aimed at keeping Lake Mead from crashing.

Water was such an afterthought in 1920s Clark County that Nevada’s representatives in the negotiations happily accepted the smallest share of the Colorado in exchange for what they were really after: construction jobs, tax revenue and access to cheap electricity from soon-to-be-built Hoover Dam.

“Nevada was the first to ratify the (Colorado River) compact. They wanted the power, and they wanted the dam site,” Harrison said.

So when tiny Nevada received its tiny allotment of river water — 300,000 acre-feet a year, compared with 2.8 million for Arizona and 4.4 million for California — state officials and civic leaders barely batted an eye.

Link to the lake

Who could blame them?

When construction of Hoover Dam began in 1931, fewer than 100,000 people lived in Nevada, and most of them were in the northern half of the state, far beyond the river’s reach. Clark County, population 8,500, was home to some mines, a few modest farming operations and a newly legal gaming industry, but nothing that seemed to require a major new source of water or the means of delivering it.

“There’s nobody here,” Harrison said. “Who in their right mind is going to pay for the infrastructure” to pipe water into the valley from Lake Mead?

That question eventually found its answer in the dizzying growth Las Vegas experienced during and after World War II.

Clark County’s population more than doubled between 1940 and 1950, then tripled between 1950 and 1960 to just over 127,000. It would double or nearly double every decade after that.


(Severiano del Castillo Galvan/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

According to some estimates, the Las Vegas Valley outgrew its local groundwater supply in the late 1940s, but the community kept drilling wells and powering pumps for decades after that. By the time the community sank its first straw into Lake Mead in 1971, the free-flowing springs that attracted Las Vegas’ first settlers had been drained dry, and the ground above the valley’s depleted aquifer had begun to crack and sink in places.

The ability to draw water from Lake Mead changed everything — and quickly. Within a few decades, Las Vegas went from using no Colorado River water at all to being dependent on the river for 90 percent of its total supply.

That’s when the folly of the 300,000-acre-foot river allotment finally began to register.

“It was very late when we realized we weren’t going to have enough water,” Harrison said.

The task of solving that problem fell to a career bureaucrat whose background included a master’s degree in German literature from UNLV and a stint as Clark County’s first justice court administrator.

Pat Mulroy inherited a mess when she took over as general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District in 1989.

Former General Manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority Pat Mulroy in 1996. (Review-Journal file)

“All of the valley had become painfully aware that we were running out of water pretty quick,” said Mulroy, now a senior fellow at UNLV’s Boyd Law School and the Brookings Institution. “We had way more commitments than we had water with which to satisfy those commitments, and no way to pull them back.”

She quickly oversaw two crucial, if controversial, moves: a temporary moratorium on water for new developments and a mass filing for unappropriated groundwater rights across rural Nevada to fill a proposed pipeline to Las Vegas that still has not been built.

Mulroy also worked to end years of “open warfare” among the valley’s water utilities, bringing the agencies together under one umbrella to share and stretch Nevada’s Colorado River allocation.

Under one umbrella

The formation of the Southern Nevada Water Authority in 1991, with Mulroy at the helm, gave the community a strong, unified voice to negotiate with other river users and collectively take on major infrastructure challenges that the individual utilities would have struggled to address.

But the single most important concept that came from the creation of the water authority is the “return-flow credit” — an all-important marker issued by federal regulators that allows the community to draw an extra gallon of Colorado River water for every gallon of wastewater it treats and returns to Lake Mead.

The Nevada intake towers under construction at Hoover Dam. (Library of Congress)

The arrangement allows the Las Vegas Valley to effectively recycle almost every drop of water that enters the sewer system. It turns the water from every flush, shower, dishwasher cycle or laundry load into a renewable resource.

“We knew we had to bring additional water to bear,” said Mulroy, who retired from the district and the authority in 2014. “Until you created SNWA, the federal government had nobody to contract with who could be held accountable for all water and wastewater in Southern Nevada. Until you had SNWA, no contract for return-flow credits was possible. That was the whole point.”

A few other cities on the river also use return-flow credits to stretch their water resources, but Las Vegas is unique in returning such a high percentage of its intake to the source and reusing it.

It’s hard to overstate how important that is for Southern Nevada, according to Colorado River expert John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program in Albuquerque. With the ability to fully recycle so much of its water, Fleck said, “Las Vegas has control over its own destiny.”

Watch: How did we get here?

The end of the 20th century also saw new levels of cooperation among the seven river states, including a landmark deal that allowed Nevada to bank water in Arizona and sweeping new guidelines for dividing surplus river water among Nevada, Arizona and California.

Mulroy said the year 2000 ended in a rare moment of optimism for Western water managers, with Lake Mead close to full and a new agreement in hand that guaranteed extra water for Southern Nevada and other rapidly growing communities served by the famously fickle river.

The authority was counting on that agreement — and the surplus water it was expected to provide — to serve the community’s growing thirst for 15 years at least. Mother Nature had other ideas.

“We were looking forward to a water future exclusively from the Colorado River,” Mulroy said. “Little did we know the day the ink dried on that document, the drought would begin.”

Contact Henry Brean at or 702-383-0350. Follow @RefriedBrean on Twitter.

Construction of Hoover Dam. (Library of Congress)
A founding father’s folly
Nevada has been stuck with a paltry, 300,000 acre-foot annual share of the Colorado River since 1928, when President Calvin Coolidge signed the Boulder Canyon Project Act authorizing construction of Hoover Dam. But where did that crucial, cursed number come from?
One of Las Vegas’ founding fathers claims to have puzzled it out back-of-a-napkin style, according to a document unearthed from UNLV special collections by historian Christian Harrison.
Charles Pember Squires was a newspaperman and early civic booster who followed the railroad to Las Vegas in 1905 and wound up appointed by the governor to represent Nevada on issues relating to the proposed dam on the Colorado River.
In his typewritten recollections preserved at UNLV, the man known to locals as “Pop” Squires said Nevada’s interests in the river were “very small” and “not hard to settle.” Someone asked him how much water the state would need from the Colorado, and he replied with “a quick calculation”: maybe 75,000 acres of good land in the Las Vegas Valley and “none elsewhere,” 4 acre-feet of water a year for each of those acres, “that would be say 300,000 acre-feet per annum.”
“Seemed all right,” Squires concluded. The rest is history.
News Videos
Fiery accident in Las Vegas
A three-car accident on Spring Mountain Road around 6:30 pm on Monday night
A bipartisan coalition holds simultaneous rallies to promote criminal justice
A bipartisan coalition holds simultaneous rallies to promote criminal justice. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Stardust implosion anniversary
Twelve years ago today, the Stardust Resort and Casino was imploded. (Mat Luschek/Review-Journal)
Lawsuits filed against security contractors at Nevada National Security Site
Two lawsuits were filed today against the current and former government security contractors for the Nevada National Security Site, one on behalf of Jennifer Glover who alleges sexual discrimination and assault and the other on behalf of Gus Redding who alleges retaliation after he gave statements supporting Glover’s claims. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
New housing option helps Las Vegas moms keep kids while kicking drugs
WestCare Nevada Women and Children’s Campus in Las Vegas has added a new transitional housing wing for women who have completed the inpatient treatment at the behavioral health nonprofit to help them as they go through outpatient treatment, shore up their finances and prepare to secure long-term housing. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Teenager in critical condition after being struck by an SUV in Henderson
Authorities were called about 2:45 p.m. to the scene in the 2100 block of Olympic Avenue, near Green Valley Parkway and Sunset Road. The teenager was taken to University Medical Center in critical condition. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
The Water Question Part 3: Conservation loves a crisis
Future growth in the Las Vegas Valley will rest almost entirely on the community’s ability to conserve its finite share of the Colorado River.
The Water Question Part 7: How much can we grow?
Many experts agree that Southern Nevada can continue to grow, so long as residents are willing to do what needs to be done to stretch our crucial resource as far as it will go.
The Water Question Part 6: How many people can Southern Nevada’s water sustain?
The number can swing wildly depending on a host of variables, including the community’s rates of growth, conservation efforts and the severity of drought on the Colorado River.
Mylar Balloon Demo
NV Energy presented a demonstration Wednesday to depict the damage that can be caused by the release of Mylar balloons.
Educators dressed in red have taken to the streets to demand more for their students.
Educators dressed in red have taken to the streets to demand more for their students. Educators from around the State are bringing the Red for Ed movement to the steps of the Nevada Legislature in Carson City, NV, and to the Grant Sawyer Building in Las Vegas. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Nature Conservancy Ranch
The Nature Conservancy just bought the 900-acre 7J Ranch at the headwaters of the Amargosa River, north of Beatty. The property could become a research station, though ranching will continue.
Swift water rescue at Durango Wash in Las Vegas
On Thursday, February 14, 2019, at approximately 8:42 a.m., the Clark County Fire Department responded to a report of a swift water incident where people were trapped in the Durango wash which is located near 8771 Halcon Ave. Personnel found one person who was trapped in the flood channel. The individual was transported to the hospital in stable condition. Video by Clark County Fire & Rescue.
Flooding at E Cheyenne in N. Las Vegas Blvd.
Quick Weather Around the Strip
Rain hits Las Vegas, but that doesn't stop people from heading out to the Strip. (Mat Luschek/Review-Journal)
Aaron Semas, professional bull rider, talks about his traumatic brain injuries
Aaron Semas, professional bull rider, talks about his traumatic brain injuries. The Cleveland Clinic will begin researching the brains of retired bull riders to understand the impact traumatic brain injuries have on cognition. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/ Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Matt Stutzman shoots arrows with his feet
Matt Stutzman who was born without arms shoots arrows with his feet and hits the bullseye with remarkable accuracy. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Secretary of Air Force Emphasizes the Importance of Nellis AFB
US Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson visited Nellis Air Force Base during Red Flag training and described how important the base is to the military.
Former Northwest Academy student speaks out
Tanner Reynolds, 13, with his mother Angela McDonald, speaks out on his experience as a former student of Northwest Academy in Amargosa Valley, which includes abuse by staff member Caleb Michael Hill. Hill, 29, was arrested Jan. 29 by the Nye County Sheriff’s Office on suspicion of child abuse.
Former Northwest Academy students speak out
Tristan Groom, 15, and his brother Jade Gaastra, 23, speak out on their experiences as former students of Northwest Academy in Amargosa Valley, which includes abuse by staff and excessive medication.
Disruption At Metro PD OIS Presser
A man claiming to be part of the press refused to leave a press conference at Metro police headquarters, Wednesday January 30, 2019. Officers were forced to physically remove the man. (Mat Luschek/Review-Journal)
Clients at Las Vegas’ Homeless Courtyard talk about their experience
Clients at Las Vegas’ Homeless Courtyard talk about their experience after the city began operating around the clock. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Las Vegas parts ways with operator of homeless courtyard
Jocelyn Bluitt-Fisher discusses the transition between operators of the homeless courtyard in Las Vegas, Thursday Jan. 24, 2019.(Caroline Brehman/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas police and Raiders partner with SafeNest
Las Vegas police and the Raiders partner with SafeNest on Project Safe 417 (the police code for domestic violence is 417). The program partners trained SafeNest volunteer advocates with Metropolitan Police Department officers dispatched to domestic violence calls, allowing advocates to provide immediate crisis advocacy to victims at the scene of those calls. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
North Las Vegas police chief discusses officer-involved shooting
North Las Vegas police chief Pamela Ojeda held a press conference Thursday, Jan. 24, regarding an officer-involved shooting that took place on Jan. 21. The incident resulted in the killing of suspect Horacio Ruiz-Rodriguez. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Volunteers gather for annual Clark County homeless count
Volunteers gather for the annual Southern Nevada Homeless Census, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Who can understand hospital price lists?
Lists of costs for procedures, drugs and devices are now posted the websites of hospitals to comply with a new federal rule designed to provide additional consumer transparency. Good luck figuring out what they mean.
People in Mesquite deal with a massive power outage
People in Mesquite respond to a major power outage in the area on Monday, Jan. 21, 2019. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Group helping stranded motorists during power outage
A group of Good Samaritans are offering free gas to people in need at the Glendale AM/PM, during a massive power outage near Mesquite on Monday, Jan. 21, 2019. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
U.S. Sen. Jacky Rosen falls at Las Vegas parade
U.S. Sen. Jacky Rosen of Nevada fell and injured her wrist at the Martin Luther King Day parade in Las Vegas on Monday, Jan. 21, 2019. (Nathan Asselin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Local Videos
The Bellagio Conservatory's spring display has a Japanese theme
The Bellagio's conservatory is hosting around 65,000 flowers, to form a Japanese theme this spring. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Bonnie Springs closes (Caroline Brehman/Kimber Laux)
Bonnie Springs Ranch near Las Vegas officially closed its gates Sunday, March 17, 2019. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Honoring a fallen North Las Vegas Police officer at his namesake school
The 20th Annual Raul P. Elizondo Honor Day celebrates the fallen North Las Vegas Police officer's legacy at his namesake school. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Windy day in Las Vegas Valley
The Review-Journal's camera on the under-construction Las Vegas Stadium the was buffered by high winds on Wednesday, March 14, 2019. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
March gloom falls on Las Vegas
After a rainy overnight, gloomy skies hover over Las Vegas Tuesday morning. (Mat Luschek/Review-Journal)
John Katsilometes gets his head shaved at St. Baldrick's
Las Vegas Review-Journal man-about-town columnist John Katsilometes gets his head shaved by former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman during St. Baldrick's Foundation shave-a-thon on the Brooklyn Bridge at New York-New York in Las Vegas Friday, March 8, 2019. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
The Blue Angels take flight over Las Vegas Strip
The Blue Angels’ U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron flew their signature Delta formation over a part of the Las Vegas Strip, McCarran International Airport and east Las Vegas and were scheduled to fly over Hoover Dam. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Vegas88s
Gross World Records
A group of about 20 children gathered around a TV at Sahara West Library on Feb. 27 for a history lesson on the most disgusting world records.
Graduation for Renewing HOPE program
The Renewing HOPE program graduation for homeless who spend nine months in Catholic Charities program. Graduates are preparing to enter the workforce. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Car crashes into Starbucks near Las Vegas Strip
Lt. William Matchko of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police gives details about a car crashing into a Starbucks at Sahara Avenue and Paradise Road, near the Las Vegas Strip, on Friday, March 1, 2019. (Jessica Terrones/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Car crashed into PT’s Gold
A 60-year-old man who police believe was impaired drove into a PT’s Gold at Silverado Ranch and Decatur boulevards Thursday night, Metropolitan Police Department Lt. William Matchko said. The driver was hospitalized and is expected to survive. A man inside the bar was hit by debris but drove himself to the hospital, Matchko said. (Katelyn Newberg/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Driver crashes vehicle into PT’s tavern in south Las Vegas (part 1)
A driver suspected of impairment crashed a vehicle into the wall of a PT’s Gold tavern, at 4880 W. Silverado Ranch Blvd., in Las Vegas on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019. (Katelyn Newberg/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Driver crashes vehicle into PT’s tavern in south Las Vegas (pullout)
A driver suspected of impairment crashed a vehicle into the wall of a PT’s Gold tavern, at 4880 W. Silverado Ranch Blvd., in Las Vegas on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019. (Katelyn Newberg/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Kids Read Books To Dogs At The Animal Foundation In Las Vegas
Kids from local Las Vegas elementary schools took part, Thursday, in a program at the Animal Foundation, where they read books to dogs. (Mat Luschek/Review-Journal)
Pioneer Trail highlights historic locations in West Las Vegas
The Pioneer Trail, a 16-site route of historically significant locations in Las Vegas, starts at the Springs Preserve and snakes east until it reaches above the brim of downtown. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutefsya
Vegas Warm Weather Hits Las Vegas Valley
Between Feb. 20-21, parts of the Las Vegas Valley were hit with 7.5" of snow. Less than a week later, it was sunny with temperatures in the 70s. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Dr. S. Jay Hazan, a World War II veteran, talks about his arrest at the VA Hospital
Dr. S. Jay Hazan, a World War II Army veteran, was arrested in November after he caused a ruckus at the VA Hospital in North Las Vegas and stole his driver's car keys. He was arraigned on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019, and the charges will be dropped after 60 days. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/ Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Claytee White talks about Black History Month
An interview with Claytee White, director of the Oral History Research Center at UNLV. (Benjamin Hager/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Reflecting on the Moulin Rouge and a segregated Vegas
Former employees of the Moulin Rouge, the first integrated hotel-casino in Nevada, talk about what it was like in the brief six months the casino was open. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas home prices
Home prices rose in every ZIP code in the Las Vegas Valley in 2018 for the second year in a row, according to SalesTraq. Prices grew fastest in older, more centrally located areas. But prices were highest in the suburbs. The top three ZIP codes for price growth were 89119 (29.8%), 89146 (25%) and 89030 (24.6%). The top three ZIP codes for median sales prices were 89138 ($464,500), 89135 ($420,500) and 89052 ($370,000).
Wagonwheel Drive overpass reopens after ice closure
Overpass at Wagonwheel Drive reopens after ice on the onramp caused the ramp to be shut down, Feb. 22, 2019. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Keeping warm at the city of Las Vegas’ homeless courtyard
With help from the city of Las Vegas, a Salvation Army shelter stays open during the day Thursday and Friday, offering a safe place for the homeless to find respite from freezing temperatures and snow. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Sloppy, Slushy Road Conditions Lead to Slow Traffic
Traffic slowed to a crawl on Jones are near Russell as conditions worsened Thursday. (Mat Luschek/Review-Journal)
Winter storm blankets west side of Las Vegas Valley
On Wednesday evening through early Thursday a winter storm dumped more than 7 1/2 inches of snow on some parts of the Las Vegas Valley. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas snow day for children
Las Vegas kids play in the snow that fell on Feb. 21, 2019. (Belinda Englman/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Snow closes Red Rock Canyon, residents enjoy rare snowfall
The greater Las Vegas area was hit with snowfall on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2019. This video shows the areas surrounding Red Rock Canyon and the Summerlin community. Video by: Heidi Fang/Las Vegas Review-Journal
Las Vegas kids attend school in the snow
Las Vegas children attend school during a rare snowstorm on Feb. 21, 2019. Staton Elementary School and other CCSD schools remained open. (Glenn Cook/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
People enjoying the snow in Summerlin
Fox Hill Park in Summerlin was busy Thursday morning, Feb. 21, 2019, with people enjoying the rare snow that fell overnight. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
NHP advises motorists to take caution during Las Vegas snowstorm
NHP advised motorists to take caution during the snowstorm in Las Vegas. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Timelapse of snow at Red Rock Canyon
More than 7 inches of snow fell in the western areas of the Las Vegas Valley, including Red Rock Canyon, on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
It is a rainy Valentine's Day in Las Vegas - Video
These scenes come from the Las Vegas Stadium LiveCam (Las Vegas Review-Journal)