The water empress of Vegas

How Patricia Mulroy quenched Sin City's thirst

  • UNFLAPPABLE: Patricia Mulroy during pipeline construction in 1996

    Gary Thompson, Las Vegas Review-Journal
  • Patricia Mulroy reminded the West that southern Nevada was rich, running out of water and not about to go away

    Jim Laurie, Las Vegas Review-Journal
  • THE DUCK STOPS HERE: Markus Schurr of Germany watches a duck near the Mirage fountain. Migratory birds flock to the artificial waters of Las Vegas and its suburbs.

    Lori Cain, Las Vegas Sun
  • "Nevada... maximize(s) the amount of treated sewage it puts back into Lake Mead." -- Larry Paulson

    Bill Hughes, Las Vegas Business Press
  • GREAT GUZZLER: The second straw intake under construction in Lake Mead

    photo courtesy Southern Nevada Water Authority
  • Saddle Island instakes #1 and #2

    Diane Sylvain

LAS VEGAS, Nev. - There are few facts of life in Las Vegas more constant than breakneck growth and sunshine. The dry, bright afternoon of Jan. 22, 2000, was no exception.

Gamblers laid down their shares of that month's record-breaking $866 million casino win. Tourist-laden airplanes landed at the nation's seventh-busiest airport. Suburbanites shuttled children between birthday parties and soccer games.

And on a sun-dappled, narrow island in Lake Mead, a crane lowered Democratic Sen. Harry Reid and Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn, awkward in hard hats and safety harnesses, into the mouth of southern Nevada's newly opened, $80.9 million "second straw" into the Colorado River.

Watching from the edge of the crowd, Patricia Mulroy was elated. "I can't remember a day when I've been happier," the Southern Nevada Water Authority's general manager told a reporter.

Mulroy had good reason to be happy.

Western cities have never stopped growing because of lack of water, but in the early 1990s, Las Vegas began to look like an exception. The first mega-casinos had begun to rise on the Strip. Cheap homes, warm weather and well-paying service-industry jobs were drawing 3,000 to 6,000 people a month (HCN, 4/24/00: At your service: Unions help some Western workers serve themselves): Mexican immigrants, downsized blue-collar workers, retiring baby boomers from across the nation and refugees from California's receding economy and high home prices.

The Las Vegas Valley's population ballooned from 741,459 people in 1990 to 1,375,765 people in 2000, an 85 percent surge roughly equivalent to every man, woman and child in Santa Fe moving to Las Vegas each year. The boom made Las Vegas the nation's fastest-growing metropolitan area.

New homes and lawns sprawled across a valley floor touched by four inches of rain a year. Southern Nevada's annual consumption of Colorado River water spiraled toward the 300,000 acre-foot ceiling imposed in the 1920s by the Law of the River, the powerful series of interstate compacts and Supreme Court decisions governing Colorado River water.

Southern Nevada's cities started guarding their shares of Nevada's annual allocation of Colorado River water. Governments and businesses made contingency plans for 1995, when the valley would hit its water limit. Headlines nationwide declared that Las Vegas, the water-guzzling Sodom on the Colorado, was about to run dry.

But the headline writers had not reckoned with Patricia Mulroy, a rising talent in the bureaucracy of Clark County, which includes the Strip and the other unincorporated parts of the valley. The German-born former court administrator was appointed general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District in 1989. Within 10 years, the outspoken, politically savvy operator had gotten her hands on enough water to carry the metro area through the growth foreseen for the next half century.

She did it without building dams, and without importing water via large aqueducts from distant rural areas. She changed the rules so that the water would come to her, and she gambled on victory. When the second straw was completed, Mulroy still wasn't sure that Las Vegas would get enough water, but with the help of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, she won her bet.

These successes have a dark side. Mulroy has delivered water to some of the region's worst water-wasters. Some say her approach is poisoning Lake Mead, which supplies water not only to Las Vegas but also to users farther downstream, including farmers in the Imperial Valley and some Southern California urbanites. But so far, these seem small considerations in Las Vegas, where the power structure is focused on a single objective: growth.

Taking the helm

According to census maps, the Las Vegas metropolitan area stretches from central Nevada to California and into western Arizona. But its demographic heart is the Las Vegas Valley, a broad basin framed by soaring sandstone escarpments and black volcanic slopes.

The Las Vegas Valley Water District serves much of this valley. Mulroy recalls that in her first years as deputy general manager in the mid-1980s, annual increase in water consumption soared from 5 percent a year into double digits. "When we started seeing 17 and 21 percent, we were in trouble," Mulroy says of the early 1990s. "The slumberland that we had been in forever was over. The balloon popped."

A metropolis built on virtual reality had run into the central reality of life in the desert: water. "The bankers were starting to get squeamish about giving out loans," Mulroy says. "It was looking like it was going to undermine the whole economic fiber of southern Nevada."

The growing water scare led to the ouster of the Las Vegas Valley Water District's general manager in 1989. Mulroy was given the mess.

She became one of the water warlords in a lawless region. Although Las Vegas is well known, the city is only one of five municipalities within Clark County that form a nearly unbroken stretch of urban development from the Colorado River to the foothills of the Spring Mountains on the far northern end of the Las Vegas Valley. In 1989, the Las Vegas Valley Water District, the former dam workers' camp of Boulder City, gritty North Las Vegas and the bedroom community of Henderson divided Nevada's meager allocation of water with other, smaller cities and some aging industrial sites.

"Use it or lose it" was the order of the day, and there were reports of one small city opening its fire hydrants and pouring water into the streets to use its full municipal allocation before year's end.

"It was really not fighting (each other) as much as trying to position each of our entities strategically to prepare for our continued growth," says Phil Speight, Henderson city manager.

Mulroy set about corralling North Las Vegas, Henderson and Boulder City into union with the city of Laughlin's Big Bend Water District, the Clark County Sanitation District and her Las Vegas Valley Water District. Her goal was to form a regional water agency, the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

It only took her two years to accomplish the task. In 1991, the once-warring water and sewer agencies approved agreements that charged the water authority with tackling southern Nevada's water supply and quality problems.

"My job was always the politics, to take the analytical and translate it into political terms," she says of her bureaucratic career.

In order to persuade the municipalities to pool water, she built trust by sharing proprietary hydrological information with them. The water pool was managed by Mulroy and her loyal team of deputies, with oversight from what has turned out to be an almost entirely compliant board of elected officials from the Authority's member cities.

Phil Speight argues that Mulroy has earned members' compliance. "Whether or not she could ... put on another hat and become the regional czar was something that she had to establish with all of the entities," Speight says. "She was able to develop trust with all of the administrators as well as the political leaders of each of the entities through her work ethic. She basically picked up the gauntlet É when the time was right."

North Las Vegas, Henderson, Boulder City and Laughlin still run their own water utilities. But water conservation, interstate negotiations, infrastructure construction, groundwater management, wastewater planning and other regional responsibilities fall to the Southern Nevada Water Authority - which is, in all but name, the same as the Las Vegas Valley Water District run by Mulroy and her deputies.

Mulroy's team then took aim at Nevada's Colorado River Commission. That body was supposed to get more water for Nevada out of the Colorado River, but it had been unsuccessful. In 1993, Mulroy and her allies persuaded Nevada's Legislature to give Las Vegas-area elected officials serving on her water authority board three of the seven seats on the commission. That shifted the commission's negotiating power to the Authority, and therefore to Mulroy.

With the commission in its pocket, says Mulroy, the Authority became "a different critter than had ever been created in the West." Local water agencies are usually at war with one another. In Las Vegas, they formed a powerful united front.

In a region where politics is marked by petty intrigue and little significant decision-making, Mulroy became known for tough honesty, bold moves and a willingness to work closely with the powerful.

Rather than curry favor with the casino operators or homebuilders, Mulroy made it clear that she would use her skills to obtain what every businessman wanted - water - and distribute it without questioning southern Nevada's ethic of pedal-to-the-metal growth.

Declaration of water war

After Mulroy consolidated her power in the Southern Nevada Water Authority and took over the Colorado River Commission, her first act was to stake a claim to hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of upstate, rural groundwater. This sparked a backlash against what the "cow counties" called a water grab. Mulroy didn't help matters by pointing out that one hotel in Las Vegas employed more people than all the ranches and farms in rural Nevada.

The reaction wasn't confined to Nevada. Hundreds of organizations nationwide protested what the Authority optimistically called its "Cooperative Water Project." Mulroy was vilified by farmers, ranchers, rural officials and environmentalists.

"I will grant you that the way we did it caused a lot of fear," Mulroy says today.

Then she opened a second front. On the heels of a report predicting that Las Vegas would run out of water in 1995, she revoked hundreds of the Las Vegas Valley Water District's commitments to serve future developments with water. She also stopped issuing new commitments. With urban developers now added to her list of enemies, it looked as if the new water empress had a death wish.

But Mulroy says she and her deputies did not stumble blindly into these moves. The rural water filings and canceled commitments were meant to remind the West that southern Nevada was rich, running out of water and not about to go away.

"We only knew that it would create the necessary debate of, 'Where is southern Nevada's future water supply going to come from?' " she says.

It's part of how she operates. Mulroy has often proposed unpopular ideas to win support for a more sensible solution that would never be considered if not for the harsh alternative she first puts forward.

A perfect example is the thousands of acre-feet of water the Authority has purchased from agricultural areas in northern Clark County over the past two years. The legal, brute-force way to get that water to Las Vegas is to dam the tributaries and build a pipeline.

The other way - the illegal way - is to let the water flow naturally via tributaries into Lake Mead, where her Authority could withdraw additional water through existing intakes. But that way would require significant change in the Law of the River, which right now does not allow so-called water wheeling. If you own water, you have to put it to use at that point, rather than let it flow downstream to some more convenient point, such as Lake Mead.

She describes her presentation to the Department of Interior this way: "There are your options. You choose. I can go either way."

Over and over again, she posed those kinds of alternatives to her opponents - rural Nevada, environmentalists, the Department of Interior, and Arizona and California. Did they want her to do things the hard, destructive way, or would they help her do it the easier way?

Authority insiders are close-mouthed about the immediate prospects for water wheeling, but it seems almost certain that Mulroy and her deputies are applying the same tough tactics to the new Interior administration. Their chances of success are uncertain.

Playing the numbers game

In a very short time, Mulroy has added supply and softened urban-rural acrimony through small-scale, amicable acquisitions from Nevada farmers, neighboring states and the federal government.

"If it's wet, we go get it," is how David Donnelly, Mulroy's deputy general manager, puts it.

The water plan depends on many new water sources rather than one blockbuster project. A major part of the portfolio is "return-flow credits," which allow a Colorado River water user to use and reuse the same water until it finally evaporates or sinks into the ground. In the case of the Las Vegas Valley, it means that every acre-foot of wastewater that flows back into Lake Mead can be credited toward the amount of water that southern Nevada withdraws from the reservoir. If Las Vegas withdraws 420,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Mead, which is exactly what it does, but dumps 120,000 acre-feet of effluent back in, which is also what it does, it has stayed within its 300,000 acre-foot quota.

Every state on the Colorado River has the same right: They all divert more than their quotas, but are only "charged" for the amount that doesn't return to the Colorado River for use by a downstream state. But in Nevada, no agency was using those credits until 1992, when the Southern Nevada Water Authority signed a contract with the Bureau of Reclamation. With that agreement in place, the water commitments began flowing to developers again, and they and their bankers calmed down.

There's a rub. The return flow is more than accounting. The flow back into Lake Mead - made up of everything from the discharge from wastewater treatment plants to lawn sprinkler runoff from the streets - takes place at the Las Vegas Wash. At one time, this wetland covered 2,000 acres, and supported an array of wildlife. Today, erosion and down-cutting caused by growing runoff has reduced the wash to 200 acres. The fact that the wetland was created initially by the return flows hasn't stopped its destruction from being controversial.

Some environmentalists say return-flow credits discourage Las Vegas from reusing its wastewater. Mulroy, who has recently launched efforts to restore some of the Las Vegas Wash wetlands, argues that "we'd still be having the problems" without return-flow credits. "I don't have any regrets," she says. "(The wastewater) was going to be there anyway."

Thinking bigger

Once she'd gotten the return-flow credits, Mulroy turned to enlarging Nevada's base-right to Colorado River water of 300,000 acre-feet per year. She is quick to depict California as the West's most egregious water guzzler. But she has fought for concessions similar to those that allow California to take 800,000 acre-feet per year more out of the Colorado than allowed under the decades-old Law of the River that governs the Colorado.

The key here was her relationship with former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, the water master of the Colorado River and the man who, in theory, could have told California that it had to live within its legal allotment. Mulroy describes her relationship with Babbitt as cooperative and cordial, and Babbitt has praised Mulroy and her Authority. Mulroy traces the relationship to her first meetings with Babbitt, when he was an attorney representing rural Nevadans trying to stop Mulroy's raid on northern Nevada's groundwater.

Babbitt says his close-up view of Nevada's problems strengthened his commitment to loosening the restrictions that prevented flexible use of Colorado River water.

Mulroy recalls, "When Bruce Babbitt became secretary, he said, 'I will solve southern Nevada's problem with Colorado River water.' He was always a firm believer that change needed to occur along the Colorado River."

Just before leaving office this January, Babbitt signed a document that gives California, Arizona and Nevada access to so-called surplus Colorado River water for the next 15 years, even if they have to draw down Lake Mead to create that surplus. As a result, Las Vegas' second straw into the river, which had so elated Mulroy when it was completed in early 2000, is finally full of water.

Southern California will use its surplus water to get through each year, but Nevada will store much of its surplus in Arizona aquifers through a water-banking deal, also made possible by changes Babbitt helped bring to the Law of the River. Remaining supplies will be banked in Las Vegas Valley aquifers depleted by decades of overdraft. The banked water will be used toward the end of the next 50 years, to allow southern Nevada to continue to grow in that period.

Mulroy is also getting involved in city planning. In April 2000, she laid out a bold plan to build by 2005, the year of Las Vegas' centennial, a $171 million "Central Park" on 180 acres of land owned by the Las Vegas Valley Water District she continues to manage. That would create the largest park in this city that has only an acre of open space per 1,000 people, less than a quarter the national average.

An 'undergolfed' city

What's wrong with this picture? A great deal, according to environmentalists and a small group of local critics. They say Mulroy's successes are bolstering Las Vegas' culture of water waste.

Part of Mulroy's strategy is to demonstrate that her Authority prefers to be as light on the land and the water as possible. Mulroy and her staff have launched a unified, media-savvy effort to remake the image of Las Vegas as water wastrel, a place that sends both lives and precious water down the tubes.

The conservation effort is aimed as much at other states as local residents. If southern Nevada wants to be a player on the Colorado River, it needs to gain the respect of the other states in the basin.

In the past two years, the cities of Las Vegas and North Las Vegas and unincorporated Clark County, which contains the Strip and many of the metro area's fastest-growing neighborhoods, have passed ordinances restricting turf grass on lawns and golf courses.

To show its toughness, the Authority shelved plush, kid-friendly conservation mascot Deputy Drip last summer in favor of stark television and print ads warning Las Vegans to conserve. Its programs have produced a 17 percent conservation rate, meaning that residents are using that much less water than they would have without conservation, agency officials say. Mulroy promises a 25 percent conservation rate by 2010.

But a drive through Las Vegas neighborhoods shows something else.

A central icon of Las Vegas is the oasis, the pool of clear water in the heart of the desert. Steve Wynn, the Strip's best-known casino developer, built his Treasure Island, Mirage and Bellagio around flamboyant public water shows. Now he plans to build four hotels, a vast lake and a "water stadium" on the site of the shuttered Desert Inn. Other developers say their valley is "undergolfed." Subdivisions and office parks echo the water theme, with names like The Lakes and Desert Shores, and with endless decorative ponds, fountains and swimming pools.

As a result, the metro area is a vast stopping grounds for migratory birds flying to and from their winter roosts in Mexico and California's San Joaquin Valley. Mallard ducks, Canada geese and other waterfowl have settled by the thousands in backyard pools and the "water features" of golf courses. Bird waste has become a common complaint of pool owners, and Nevada Division of Wildlife officers spend days relocating wild birds from urban suburbs to rural wildlife refuges.

Profligate water use doesn't stop with backyards and golf courses. Streams of runoff from lawns flow nightly through city streets. The Authority has three "water cops" patrolling the metropolis of 1.4 million people, but despite rivers of wasted water in the streets, the Authority had not written a single citation as of February 2001.

Mulroy has proven she is willing to enrage the entire state to implement her policies. But in the case of "wasted" water, nothing is at stake for the valley's water supply. It will all flow into the Las Vegas Wash, the eroding wetlands that channel an estimated 153 million gallons a day of wastewater and treated urban runoff into Lake Mead. And that 153 million gallons will all be credited back to Las Vegas under the Law of the River.

Not a drop to drink

Water in the streets may not bother Mulroy and her Authority, but it disturbs Larry Paulson, a retired University of Nevada, Las Vegas, biology professor who has spent much of his career studying the Las Vegas Wash. Paulson is a charming but quick-tempered former Air Force staff sergeant, and an oft-quoted Mulroy detractor who can quickly veer from trenchant criticism to conspiracy theory.

Many dismiss him in public as a gadfly but acknowledge in private that he has been on target in his observations about the wash's rapid erosion, which is destroying its ability to naturally filter Las Vegas' wastewater. Initially, the city's wastewater created the wetlands. But as the flows grew, they rapidly degraded the channel by cutting down through the crumbly southern Nevada soil.

Paulson argues that return-flow credits have encouraged Las Vegas to destroy the wash and blindly poison its own water supply. He wants to see the area clean and reuse the water rather than dump it into Lake Mead and then reuse it. On a recent Sunday evening, Paulson stood at the top of a hill overlooking the spot where Las Vegas Wash empties into Las Vegas Bay.

"See under that bridge? That's where the wash was in 1971, when I started working out here," he says, pointing to a point about 40 feet higher than the wash's current bed. "Nevada's been for the past 20, 25 years taking every opportunity to maximize the amount of treated sewage it puts back into Lake Mead, a mere six miles upstream from our drinking water intakes."

There are serious signs of trouble. Las Vegas' drinking water was linked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the metropolitan area's 1994 outbreak of illnesses caused by cryptosporidium, a parasitic microorganism contained in human and animal waste. Thirty-two people died and 78 were sickened in that outbreak, according to CDC figures. Recent studies have also found perchlorate, which is a rocket fuel component, mutated fish, pharmaceutical residue and human hormones in the wash and the bay.

Authority officials say the wastewater is diluted by the time it reaches the intakes, and argue that Las Vegas' drinking water is perfectly safe. Water quality problems, they say, are simply a matter of public misconception.

Paulson has a simple response: "Why don't you ask the people what they think?"

Residents are voting with their dollars. It is nearly impossible to find a local resident who can afford a tap-mounted filter or a bottled water dispenser and doesn't have one. Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman has publicly stated that a person would be crazy to drink his city's tap water. Patricia Mulroy has successfully used the Law of the River to fuel her city's insatiable growth, but she may one day face a rebellion in her water empire.


Michael Weissenstein covers environmental issues for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. This article was supported by the William C. Kenney Watershed Protection Foundation.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Michael Weissenstein

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