The water czar who reshaped Colorado River politics — High Country News #ColoradoRiver

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

Here’s an in-depth look at Pat Mulroy and her role shaping Colorado River politics and leading the Southern Nevada Water Authority into the 21st Century, from Matt Jenkins writing for the High Country News. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

In 1985, Mulroy became deputy general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District, one of seven water agencies that supply Vegas and its suburbs. By 1989, she was general manager — and found herself with a fight on her hands. The seven agencies were running out of water and squabbling over what remained. “Southern Nevada was in meltdown,” she says. “It was acrimonious and ugly.”

It took three years to find “peace and a pathway forward,” as she puts it, by convincing the other agencies to cooperate under the banner of a new superagency called the Southern Nevada Water Authority, whose primary goal would be to ensure water supplies for the entire metropolitan area. From the start, it was clear that Mulroy would be in charge. “There was no way in hell,” says George Forbes, then Boulder City manager, “that she was going to play Number Two to anybody.”

Then Mulroy turned outward. In the 1920s, when the Colorado River was originally divvied up, Las Vegas was little more than a railroad stop, and Nevada was a sparsely populated desert. The other six states that share the river received nearly all the water — and the power. Mulroy was determined to change that by challenging the so-called “law of the river,” an amalgamation of more than four-dozen statutes, international treaties and court decrees that other states’ managers adhered to, Mulroy notes sarcastically, as if they were Moses’ tablets. With southern Nevada’s warring agencies now united, Mulroy was ready to take on the other states. “When we said something,” she says, “they knew we meant it.”

For his part, Bunker likens Mulroy’s entrance into the broader realm of Colorado River politics to unleashing “a flash-bang grenade” on a bunch of “old, mossback, gray-headed guys.”

Mulroy’s grand entrance came at a critical time for Las Vegas, which was well on its way into a major boom. In 1992, when Mulroy took charge of the Water Authority, roughly 840,000 people lived in the metropolitan area. Over the next decade, that number would nearly double. By 2002, Mulroy fully expected to have hit the limits of Nevada’s full Colorado River allocation of 300,000 acre-feet — roughly 98 billion gallons per year — even as the city continued to swell.

So she launched a campaign to wrest more water from the Colorado. Roughly 70 percent of the river’s water is used for agriculture, and many urban water agencies see that as a reservoir on which they might draw if necessary. But there’s very little farming in southern Nevada, so Mulroy was forced to look toward other states. This was sacrilege in a system where each state traditionally guarded its own allocation of the river as if it was more precious than gold.

Her sights eventually fell on Chevron, which held rights to water that it hoped to use to extract oil shale in western Colorado. The company needed a way to put the water to use until the shale industry took off. One way to do that might be by leasing it to Las Vegas.

That, however, would run headlong into a hallowed proscription in the state of Colorado. Owing to the structure of the law of the river, the upstream, Upper Basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico — and their downstream, Lower Basin counterparts — Nevada, Arizona and California — form two separate negotiating blocs, which are set squarely in opposition to each other on key legal controversies. And Colorado officials have long maintained that, under the law of the river, transfers between the Upper and Lower basins are illegal.

Though it would be decades before Colorado needed its full river allocation, officials there saw Chevron’s water as critical to the state’s future economic development. If Las Vegas came to depend on the water, they feared, Colorado might lose its rights through a sort of adverse possession.

So when Jim Lochhead, a strategy advisor for Colorado, heard about Mulroy’s negotiations with Chevron, he quickly booked a flight to Vegas and delivered a warning: Back off. “She would have gotten years and years of litigation,” Lochhead said last year. “And she wouldn’t have gotten any water.”

Mulroy turned her attention to the safer territory of the Lower Basin. Water managers there were already bandying about a series of interstate “banking” proposals, under which the states could store water for each others’ use. Both Arizona and California were interested, but Nevada’s need was urgent.

Finally, in 2001, Mulroy got what she wanted: The Southern Nevada Water Authority inked a deal under which it would pay a counterpart in Arizona to buy water from farms there and store it underground. In return, the Water Authority could, in later years, take an equivalent portion of Arizona’s share of the Colorado River directly from Lake Mead, the massive reservoir just east of Las Vegas from which the city already draws most of its water.

Though it was pitched as a banking deal, it was really an exercise in figuring out how to move water across state lines. “If you think about it, it’s pretty much the exact same thing as us going to Arizona and buying water and moving it to Nevada,” says David Donnelly, who was Mulroy’s engineering and operations chief and the principal architect of this deal. “Except in this case, Arizona buys it, takes the water and banks it for us — and then we get it back in the future.”

It was also the first federally sanctioned deal for a water transfer between two states. But Mulroy has only ever spoken about it euphemistically because transfers, even within the Lower Basin, are so politically charged. “Don’t ever call it a transfer,” she scolded during a 2008 interview. “It’s a banking agreement. That thing will disappear on us tomorrow if we call it a transfer.”

She had learned a crucial lesson, however. In the years that followed, Mulroy would — despite her reputation as a woman who didn’t mince words — speak an increasingly convoluted lingua franca that would eventually include enigmas like “intentionally created unused apportionment.” It sounds like gobbledygook, but it was all for a larger end.

“I learned it’s not what you do, it’s what you call it,” Mulroy told me. “You find the right name for it, and you can do anything.”

The opaque language bought managers leeway to try new approaches within the arcane system of interstate water management on the river. That helped Mulroy in her quest for water to sustain Vegas’ runaway growth. Ultimately, however, it would help all the Colorado River water bosses weather a much bigger looming disaster.

More Colorado River coverage here.

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