Water Czar Leaves Big Legacy And Lessons For Dry Southwest

By Laurel Morales
February 13, 2014
Laurel Morales
Pat Mulroy is retiring after 25 years of changing people's perceptions about water in the southwest.

President Barack Obama visits Fresno, Calif., Friday to see firsthand the effects of the worst drought in a century. California’s governor has asked state residents to cut back water use by 20 percent. The rest of the Southwest is also experiencing extreme-to-severe drought. In the first part of a water series we’re calling Pipe Dreams, we went to Las Vegas to talk to a woman who has redefined water management in the West — outgoing water czar Pat Mulroy.  

It’s Pat Mulroy’s last day on the job. A few miles outside the Las Vegas strip the southern Nevada water manager looks out at the skyline.

“Look at the high rises,” Mulroy said. “Those aren’t all hotels. Those are apartments and condo units. People are living in a much more urban setting than the Las Vegas that I moved to in 1974.”

That’s just one of the changes at least partly engineered by Mulroy. This petite woman with intense blue eyes said changing people’s minds about conservation — and about big grassy lawns in their sprawling developments — wasn’t easy.

“About as easy as taking an ocean liner and turning it 180 degrees and going in the other direction,” Mulroy said. “People were panicked.”

Beginning in the mid-1990s Mulroy faced competing pressures from developers, a growing population and a diminishing water supply. So she came up with solutions — controversial solutions like buying up water rights, recharging Lake Mead with recycled water and ripping out lawns.

With financial incentives from the water authority since 1997, Las Vegans have removed more than 160-million square feet of grass, replacing it with desert landscaping. Mulroy says the hardest person to convince to tear out his lawn was her husband.

Laurel Morales
John Entsminger replaces Pat Mulroy as the new head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

“He was a tough nut to crack because he had the ‘I was here first,’ the Old Western attitude,” Mulroy said.

Pat Mulroy has her critics, who say she never allowed water limitations to hold back growth in the city, and instead spent millions of dollars on obtaining water rights. She’s quick to point out that Las Vegas has become a global model for water conservation:  in the same time the population has grown 25 percent, the city has reduced its use of the Colorado River by a third. Her mantra: “It’s not about whether you grow; it’s about how you grow.”

John Entsminger echoed this mantra. He’s been trained well. But he has his work cut out for him. The biggest challenge:  building a $15 billion pipeline to bring water 300 miles from eastern Nevada ranchland to Las Vegas.

“I think it would be imprudent to say the very least not to have a safety net in case things go from bad to catastrophic on the Colorado,” Entsminger said.

Nevada — along with Southern California, much of Arizona and the Upper Basin states — still relies almost entirely on the Colorado River for water. The river compact, signed nearly a century ago, gave Nevada the smallest allotment. That’s why, two decades ago when Mulroy first sat down at the table with the other states’ water delegates, nobody took her state seriously.

“The joke on the river was always that Nevada’s delegate was drunk under a bar table somewhere in Santa Fe,” Mulroy said. “I’ve had that story told to me a gillion times. And I’ve said, ‘well we’ve woken up! If we’ve been in a slumber, the slumber’s over.’”

Mulroy developed a workaround to Nevada’s tiny allotment. Now Las Vegas recharges the reservoir with recycled water so it actually banks some of its water. Still the lake is now half empty, threatening supplies to the rest of the region. Mulroy says all seven of the river compact states have to come up with a solution together.  

“There won’t be winners and losers and if there is a collapse it will be a systemic collapse throughout the system,” Mulroy said. “Everybody will be affected. Everybody will be hurt.”

In years to come the solution will be in new technology, Mulroy believes, like a breakthrough in desalination, and strategies that will help farmers grow more with less water.