‘I don’t intend to sit back and watch the daisies grow’ — Pat Mulroy #ColoradoRiver

Pat Mulroy via The Earth Institute at Columbia University
Pat Mulroy photo via The Earth Institute at Columbia University

From the Las Vegas Sun (Conor Shine):

In the early months of the new century, life was good for Pat Mulroy.

A years-long and often contentious battle over Nevada’s right to excess water that roared down the Colorado River, through Lake Mead and into California, was nearing a resolution. Mulroy’s tenacious negotiating and relentless politicking, traits that would come to define her career, had her and all of Southern Nevada poised for a momentous victory that would allow the region a share of the river surplus and the fuel for continued growth.

“There was probably a four-month window in 2000 when I could have said: ‘OK. The world is wonderful. I’m putting on my rose-colored glasses and I’m done,’” Mulroy said. “I miss those four months.”

In the nine years since 1991, when she became general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, Mulroy already had made more progress raising the region’s stature among Colorado River players than any Las Vegas water official had in the previous 60 years.

But unknown to Mulroy and other water officials along the Colorado River, a drought of unprecedented severity was taking hold in the western United States.

“We were happily overusing the Colorado River in 2000 and 2001. I took a resource plan to the board that showed we had a reliable 50-year water supply and then … whammo,” she said…

There’s still more to be written about the future of water in a region besieged by drought, but Mulroy’s days as a central character are numbered. After 24 years at the helm of the Las Vegas Valley Water District and then SNWA, Mulroy, 60, announced last month her retirement…

Her prowess helped Nevada earn respect among Colorado River states and transformed once-wasteful local water districts into a unified organization recognized nationally for its conservation efforts.

“We may only have only 2 or 3 million people in Nevada, but she has an equal voice on the Colorado River as the 37 million people in California,” said Sen. Harry Reid, a longtime Mulroy ally. “They have to respect us because of her.”

Mulroy’s legacy will be tied to the success of the sprawling metropolis she helped water, the billions the authority spent doing it and the environmental costs of a controversial grab for groundwater in rural Nevada.

“Mulroy was not here when they first pumped water out of Lake Mead and into Las Vegas. It wasn’t supposed to be our main water supply, and now of course we are utterly dependent on it. That’s not her fault; her job is to make the water flow, and she’s done that,” said historian Michael Green, a professor at College of Southern Nevada. He places Mulroy in a category alongside Reid, casino magnate Steve Wynn and others for their impact on Southern Nevada. “You can argue about what she did, but you can’t argue that she did it.”[…]

From its founding in 1991 until 1999, the authority’s budget grew from $600,000 to roughly $150 million. Today, its operating budget is $454 million. New pipelines, pumping stations and treatment facilities were needed to keep up with the constant influx of new residents.

Mulroy successfully persuaded voters in 1998 to approve a 0.25 percent increase in the county sales tax to pay for construction. With Reid’s help, Mulroy got a portion of the millions made each year from federal land sales around Las Vegas diverted to SNWA. The funds helped fuel a $2.1 billion expansion of water treatment and delivery systems, a spending binge that 15 years later residents are just starting to feel through rate hikes.

Like many critical decisions throughout her career, Mulroy insists necessity forced the water system expansion…

Her efforts put California on notice and positioned the Golden State as a water-hogging, water-wasting villain.

“The beginnings were pretty rocky. We were the ones with the most to lose,” said Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District. “She was tough and she was calling us out, saying that we were not being responsible players on the river. I remember pushing back on her: ‘You’re a city in the desert; you don’t need to be telling Southern California what we should do.’”

Mulroy found an ally in Bruce Babbitt, interior secretary under President Bill Clinton and a former Arizona governor. Babbitt had once represented the rural Nevada counties opposing Mulroy’s groundwater grab, but the two found common ground in reining in California.

Negotiations on the river dragged in the late 1990s. Concerns were addressed, compromises were made.

“Pat is a very strong-willed person. She’s very upfront and very outspoken. Some people would say a little bit over the top at times,” said David Modeer, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, which provides water to large portions of Arizona, including Phoenix. “The bottom line with Pat is she is always willing to reach an equitable compromise.”

Deliberations resulted in a pair of landmark deals formalized in 2001 — one requiring California to share surpluses as long as the Colorado was flush and another allowing Nevada to bank part of its unused allocation in Arizona, building up a savings for a non-rainy day…

Dire circumstances called for drastic, expensive measures that Mulroy again said were the only available choices. Among the most visible was the authority’s “cash for grass” program, which provided $165 million worth of rebates to consumers who replaced their water-thirsty lawns with efficient xeriscaping. More than 130 million square feet of turf were ripped up, forever altering the suburban landscape but saving 7 billion gallons of water each year.

Consumption fell from an annual high of 330,000 acre-feet of water to 234,000 acre-feet — even while the valley’s population grew by 400,000 people…

With the Colorado’s ability to meet Southern Nevada’s water needs in question, the authority restarted its plans to build a pipeline to siphon groundwater from four rural counties, this time reducing its scope to target five valleys.

Ranchers, environmentalists and rural elected leaders objected.

“She’s really been hard to nail down on exactly what is she going to do up here. How much is the project going to cost? It’s been difficult to get into a real discussion with them,” said Gary Perea, a former White Pine County commissioner. “We are going to have all of the negative effects and none of the positives.”

Mulroy plowed ahead, driven again by what she saw as necessity.

“It’s not a matter of right or wrong, it’s the only solution. The one thing I’ve said over and over again is give me another solution that works,” Mulroy said.

She had her supporters, too.

“It wasn’t as if she has had a royal flush and she could pick whatever cards she wanted. She had very few hands,” Reid said. “She did the best she could. When it’s all over and done with, it will be good for the whole state.”

If the project clears legal battles, the debt-strapped agency still would need to find a way to pay for the pipeline, which is estimated to cost at least $3.2 billion…

Rapidly dropping levels at Lake Mead forced construction of a third intake straw to ensure the authority can draw from its biggest water source.

The project has since gone $200 million over budget, to $800 million. Paying for it wouldn’t have been a problem had the recession not halted the valley’s growth and, with it, the continuous stream of connection fees that had fueled the previous decade’s boom.

Over four years, the authority’s connection fee revenue, its main way of paying for new construction, dropped 98 percent from a high of $188 million to a recession low of just $3 million.

This pinch forced the authority to draw down reserves and delay projects. With the economy still sputtering and debt payments set to ratchet up, the authority turned to a rate hike in 2012. Mulroy describes the increase as the biggest, if not the only, regret of her career.

“We tried so hard to protect the community in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011. We refinanced debt. We lived off our reserves. We probably pushed it too far.”

Included in the rate increase was a surcharge on rarely used fire lines — special dedicated water lines that provide more water pressure in case of a fire. Businesses previously hadn’t paid for those lines, and the surcharge led to the tripling of some customers’ water bills — several thousand dollars in some cases.

After community outcry, the authority cut the surcharge in half. A citizens committee’s subsequent review and endorsement of the reduced surcharge was proof, Mulroy said, it was the right and necessary course of action, even if it could have been handled better…

“If we hadn’t have had to go out and essentially spend almost another $1 billion on the third intake that has no growth component to it, we would have had a slight rate increase but never what we had in 2012,” she said. “We’re not the only water utility in the country that’s building facilities that we never thought we’d have to in order to adapt.”[…]

It’s in the international forum that Mulroy hopes to write her next chapter.

She said she’s developed a deep compassion for the social and humanitarian impacts of global water access.

“I took a job and found a passion,” she said. “I am convinced that one of society’s primary challenges over the course of the next 60 or 70 years is going to be water resources. The struggle is we have 19th-century infrastructure and 19th-century attitudes that aren’t equipped to deal with what’s ahead. I don’t intend to sit back and watch the daisies grow.”

More Colorado River Basin coverage here and here.

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