Las Vegas wheels and deals for Colorado River water

  • Patricia Mulroy

    Kit Miller
  • The Hoover Dam and Lake Mead near Las Vegas

    Kit Miller and Lighthawk
  • The Lakes of Las Vegas Development's waterfront homes

    Miller and Lighthawk

Las Vegas is prepared to give up its controversial quest to pipe underground water from rural Nevada, says the area's top water official. But only if the booming metropolis can get more water from the Colorado River.

That's a big if, requiring changes in how the Colorado River has been run for most of this century. But Las Vegas, one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation, just might have the juice to pull it off. Patricia Mulroy, the hard-driving general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, is betting everything on it.

As Las Vegas has boomed in recent years so has the power of her agency. It merged over the past few years with several competing water districts, and now serves 900,000 people, 65 percent of the state's population.

Mulroy is throwing that power into changing how the Colorado River is managed. If she can get access to Colorado River water for Las Vegas, Mulroy is offering to abandon one of the biggest urban water grabs in Western history. The move puts Las Vegas at the center of reforms that are changing the way water is managed throughout the West. And it may unite her urban constituency and environmentalists against traditional water interests.

It's a startling about-face. Four years ago, when Mulroy unveiled a plan to pump all the available groundwater from 26 valleys stretching as far as 200 miles north of Las Vegas (HCN, 4/6/92), she asserted that rural Nevada could not stand in the way of the state's economic engine. The plan seemed a bold blast from the past. Its scale - over 1,000 miles of pipeline - would dwarf the Owens Valley pipeline to Los Angeles, to which it was often compared.

Mulroy now acknowledges that the groundwater importation plan has been proclaimed "the singularly most stupid idea anyone's ever had." But, she says, "I don't think we would have gotten attention to southern Nevada's needs without the outpouring of concerns on those applications."

David Donnelly, chief engineer for the water authority, is also openly disdainful of the importation project that he defended until recently. "Frankly, it doesn't make any sense. We don't want to build any more dams, reservoirs, or construction projects. We want to do things that cost less and that are more politically, socially and environmentally acceptable."

With the groundwater project - a traditional approach to a city's need for water - out of the way for the moment, Mulroy and her colleagues now see Las Vegas as a major player on the Colorado River. Last year, she took her message to Washington, D.C., as the first chairman of the Western Urban Water Coalition, a new lobbying group for cities seeking a greater share of water in the West.

Western water attracts visionaries. Some pursue mirages; others prove to be ahead of their time. And there are a few who figure out how to get what they want from the changes they see coming.

Patricia Mulroy may be one of the practical visionaries of the post-reclamation era. She appears to understand where reform of Western water is headed: away from new construction projects and toward better management of rivers and ecosystems. She watched Denver's Two Forks Dam proposal go down to defeat. Closer to home, she saw Southern California fail to get its peripheral canal. From those lessons, she has come up with an alternative to a massive construction and dewatering project.

Mulroy says that if Nevada can add 200,000 to 250,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water to the state's current annual allocation of 300,000 acre-feet from the Colorado River, then she will recommend dropping the agency's claims on rural Nevada water. Those claims are for about 200,000 acre-feet.

Mulroy says the water needed to supply the next century of growth in southern Nevada is not a major amount, given the allocations to other states on the Colorado River. But to get there, she acknowledges, will require "major rethinking" up and down the river.

The 1922 Colorado River Compact - a major strand in the web of interstate compacts, legislation, regulations, court decisions and rules collectively known as the "law of the river' - allots 7.5 million acre-feet of water annually to the upper-basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, and 7.5 million to the lower basin states of Nevada, Arizona and California. Of that, California gets 4.4 million acre-feet, Arizona gets 2.85 million acre-feet, and Nevada gets 300,000 acre-feet. Most of California's and Arizona's Colorado River water goes to agriculture, as does the upper-basin's water.

Those allocations made sense when the 1922 compact was signed, and when the West was seen as a potential agricultural powerhouse if it only had water. But today irrigated agriculture is on the defensive.

In California, for example, Rep. George Miller helped put together a coalition of urban interests and environmentalists that pushed a major water reform bill through the Congress in 1992, despite intense opposition from California agricultural interests. That reform will make it easier for cities to buy up agricultural water.

Southern Nevada, an overwhelmingly urban area, has essentially no irrigated agriculture for Las Vegas to buy and dry up. Unlike California and Arizona, where huge chunks of those states' Colorado River water goes to farms, the Southern Nevada Water Authority already controls nearly all of Nevada's Colorado River water. Nor will conservation help much. Even with the most optimistic projections for conservation, Mulroy says, the Las Vegas area will need more water soon after the turn of the century.

To get that extra water, Mulroy wants to change the "law of the river" to allow southern Nevada to buy, borrow or otherwise bargain for water from other states' farmers and ranchers and deliver it through the agency's existing "straw" in Lake Mead.

The "law of the river" presents a formidable obstacle to her quest - an obstacle rooted in the traditional West, much like the laws and traditions governing mining, logging and grazing. But in an era when irrigation districts across the West are having trouble paying for their water, Las Vegas has what they need: cash. Mulroy has also found new allies in high federal positions, and in cities across the West, who share her vision of a changing region that needs some new rules.

Before he became secretary of Interior, Bruce Babbitt advised the rural Nevada counties fighting the Las Vegas groundwater importation plan. Now, Babbitt says, he is an "advocate" for southern Nevada.

"I'm trying to find a way for Nevada to get an increased share of Colorado River water," he announced last summer. "Las Vegas needs an expanded water supply from the Colorado River."

Around the same time, Betsy Reike, the assistant secretary of Interior who oversees the Bureau of Reclamation, was explaining her plans for reform to an annual gathering of high-powered water managers and attorneys at the University of Colorado's Natural Resources Law Center.

"The Colorado River has been locked up in the chains created by the law of the river," Reike said. "It is time to figuratively melt those chains." Reike said the Department of Interior, which manages most of the river, would "patiently leverage change" on the Colorado River, starting in the lower basin. That was just what Patricia Mulroy, sitting in the audience, hoped to hear.

The Bureau of Reclamation is drafting rules and regulations to "provide some new flexibility by allowing and facilitating voluntary transfers of water" on the lower Colorado, says Ed Osann, an assistant to bureau director Dan Beard. The proposal will be the subject of public workshops and hearings after it is released in March.

"This is something that does not require fundamental changes in the law of the river" or "tampering with the basic apportionments among and between states," says Osann. But it will be "a big step forward in encouraging the marketing of water in the lower Colorado."

The Southern Nevada Water Authority has already opened a small crack in the Colorado River arrangement with a three-way deal Mulroy put together last year with the powerful Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the Central Arizona Water Conservation District.

The California and Nevada urban water districts agreed to pay the financially troubled irrigation district (HCN, 8/10/92), which operates the Central Arizona Project, to store 100,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water in groundwater aquifers under farms served by the aqueduct. During droughts, the cities could draw on that stored water.

The deal, which was approved as a demonstration project by the Bureau of Reclamation, is simple conceptually but complicated in the details. Basically, some of Arizona's share of the Colorado River is moved through the Central Arizona Project canals - at Nevada's and Southern California's expense - to Arizona farmers who normally irrigate with groundwater. These farmers use the Colorado River water, leaving the groundwater in the aquifers.

In a drought, the farmers would draw on the stored groundwater, and California and Nevada would take additional water out of Lake Mead. Other conditions apply, of course. But in outline, some of Arizona's share of Colorado River water is being transferred to Nevada and Southern California.

"It's a chip away at water marketing" on the Colorado River, says David Donnelly, chief engineer of the Las Vegas water agency. "It required people to bend the rules a little bit. It's significant and precedent-setting that both California and Nevada now have water stored in Arizona."

Eventually, Las Vegas hopes to use its growing muscle to enlarge that crack and nearly double its supply from the Colorado River. Las Vegas is eagerly awaiting a proposal from the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Central Arizona Water Conservation District that might expand the program to "several million acre-feet," says Donnelly. But, he says, the water-banking program and the Bureau of Reclamation's new rules for the lower Colorado River are not likely to provide all the water Las Vegas needs. That will require negotiations with other Colorado River states.

Those states are watching how the bureau's efforts "to leverage change" will help Mulroy's crusade. The 1922 Colorado River Compact was designed to protect the other six compact states from the economic power of California.

The protection was needed because, if money and population had been the only measure, all the Colorado River water would have quickly flowed to Southern California, rather than remaining in Wyoming and Utah and Arizona to raise low-value crops like alfalfa and cotton. Not much has changed from 1922 to today.

From the perspective of Utah or New Mexico or Wyoming, still awaiting further urbanization and industrialization, watching their compact water flow off marginal farms and toward buyers in Las Vegas is no different than watching it flow to Los Angeles.

Mulroy has not yet directly taken on the upper-basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. She says her immediate goal is to change how the lower-basin states (California, Nevada and Arizona) apportion water among themselves. She says that until Arizona, Nevada and California have their house in order, it doesn't make sense to talk to the upper basin states about water transfers.

Arizona is her most obvious target, given the financial trouble of the Central Arizona Project. But California also uses an enormous amount of Colorado River water for agriculture. And even high-value crops in California can't compete with urban uses when it comes to water.

Mulroy laid out her strategy for negotiating with other lower basin states at recent hearings before the Nevada state engineer on the Southern Nevada Water Authority's applications for water in the Virgin River (HCN, 12/14/92). This river originates in southwestern Utah, and flows through the northwestern corner of Arizona and into Nevada, where it joins the Colorado River in Lake Mead.

The Virgin River is not part of the Colorado River Compact or any other interstate agreement. Nevada, therefore, claims that the Virgin's water is up for grabs by whoever can first develop it.

On paper, the agency's development plans call for building a dam and reservoir near Mesquite, Nev., and a pipeline to Las Vegas. Under the current law of the Colorado River, Mulroy says, Las Vegas must take the water before it enters Lake Mead and becomes part of the Colorado River.

But the Southern Nevada Water Authority doesn't really want to build the dam and pipeline just to fulfill that technicality. She says the agency would rather let the river flow into Lake Mead and take the water from there. Environmentalists, who oppose the damage that dam, reservoir and pipeline would cause, also favor letting the water flow into Lake Mead.

That, however, would require loosening the "law of the river" to allow "wheeling" water through Lake Mead. And that is the prize that Las Vegas is really playing for, says Mulroy. "The Virgin is the linchpin to the rest of the Colorado River."

Getting more water through Lake Mead, including water from the Virgin River, will require negotiations with Utah and Arizona, says Mulroy, and agreement from other states, especially California, which holds priority rights on the lower Colorado by virtue of a 1963 Supreme Court ruling. So far, officials in those states have been reluctant to let Las Vegas push too far too fast.

Mulroy says approval of the Virgin River applications for a dam and pipeline, expected from the Nevada state engineer later this year, is a necessary step to strengthen Nevada when it comes time to negotiate with the other states. Having united her southern Nevada power base, having placated most of her opponents in state, and having found a common agenda with other urban centers and the Bureau of Reclamation, Mulroy is confident it can be done.

"The preparatory pieces are in place," she says. "Now we'll push hard to move forward." She predicts that changes on the lower Colorado will move quickly this year and negotiations with other states will get under way. Las Vegas will be a "driver" of change, she vows. But, she adds, the new water regime must be ready by the year 2000.

"You can't take a community as thriving as this one and put a stop sign out there," Mulroy warns. "The train will run right over you."

Opponents of southern Nevada's plan to import water from rural Nevada remain skeptical of Las Vegas's intentions. "We're all for more water from the Colorado River," says Don de la Cruz, an organizer with the Nevada environmental group Citizen Alert. Keeping water in the Virgin River is the best way to protect it, he agrees.

But as for Mulroy's offer to drop the rural groundwater applications, so far, he says, "that's just talk."

The talk, however, has won over many other opponents. Mulroy convinced towns along the Virgin River in Nevada to drop their protests of the Las Vegas applications by cutting them in on the water and offering them a seat on the Southern Nevada Water Authority. She got the Interior Department to drop protests by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service by promising that the agency would comply with all required federal studies and permits.

And the remaining opponents of the Las Vegas groundwater importation plan - the rural counties and environmentalists - support what the district wants: more water from the Colorado River so that the city doesn't drain 20,000 square miles of rural land in southeastern Nevada.

Jon Christensen is Great Basin regional reporter for High Country News, based in Reno, Nevada.

To receive the Bureau of Reclamation's proposed changes in rules governing the lower Colorado River due out in March, contact Robert Towles, Regional Director, Bureau of Reclamation, P.O. Box 61470, Boulder City, NV 89006-1470 (702/293-8411).

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