Watch Desert Wars September 25, 2006 at 8 pm on KUED Channel 7
Interviewer: What do you see for the future of Las Vegas and how does water determine it's future?
Mulroy: I think water will always be a factor in the growth of all of the western cities. I don't think Las Vegas is any different from Salt Lake, Phoenix, Los Angeles or any of the urban centers that are developing in the west. It will be a factor, but it need not be a limitation if two things happen—if we are clever in creating some strategic partnerships and overcome some of those historic divides and if we learn to live more in tune with the desert environs in which find ourselves. Those two ingredients come into play and I think that, although water will always be something that any western resident needs to think about, I don't think it needs to be a limiter.
Interviewer: What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about water use in Las Vegas?
Mulroy: Oh I think the biggest misconceptions are those that we advertise. When you drive down the Las Vegas strip and you see the fountains, what do you think of? You think of water waste. People don't understand that the hotels are the most efficient users actually—they only use 3% of all the water in southern Nevada. They generate the vast preponderance of the gross product of the state of Nevada. And I think there is a misperception that there is nothing but waste and disregard for the resource going on. In truth, there has been a metamorphosis that has happened in this community, and people have become very aware of the resource, and in all fairness it's an on-going challenge. Every month thousands move into Las Vegas who has to be educated and don't understand. But the community has been removing grass and re-thinking their landscaping, and that's where we use our water. As long as the water is used inside, it is recycled. We're a 100% recycled. So, what is used outside is what is lost to us, and there is ample opportunity for us to conserve even more outside. But we've made great progress.
Interviewer: Tell me about your plans for the ground water in Snake Valley. What would you like to do there?
Mulroy: We have filings and we've had filings since the late '80s in Lincoln County and in White Pine County. And we have an agreement in Lincoln County on how to divide those waters, and in fact, the project that we're going to build is now both to benefit Lincoln County and Clark County. It's a joint project now between us, and Lincoln County and they will share capacity in those facilities. And we are in the process of negotiating an agreement with White Pine County about Spring Valley and Snake Valley. Under Nevada water law, the waters of the state of Nevada belong to the state of Nevada. And when you look around the state of Nevada, you will be hard-pressed to find a community that once it reaches a certain size, has an imported water from a basin outside it's immediate environment. Ironically, Las Vegas is the only one that doesn't. But if you look at Carson City or Wendover—it doesn't matter what community you look at in Nevada—we're a state because we're so arid. We have to move water around, and Nevada water law envisioned that in 1905 when the law was put on the books. That's why the waters belong to the state. And you can move them around. Now, the state will only grab the water right for perennial yield--that which, on an average, annually re-plentishes itself into the basis from run-off from mountains, from rain, whatever happens. You can't mine ground-water basins in Nevada. The waters that we filed on are waters that have, for years, identified by the US geological service as being unused, un-appropriated waters that can safely be removed from those basins (in other words, perennial yield water) that can be used for beneficial use. Given the limitations that southern Nevada has on the Colorado River, and probably most importantly, what gave us the impetus to really begin to fast track these applications again, because quite honestly they sat on a shelf for awhile, and our number one objective was to try as hard as we could to maximize Colorado River water. The drought that has began in 2000, and that we're quite frankly still in because the reservoirs are only at just over 50% combined capacity, was a wake-up call. Southern Nevada can't protect itself against a drought. When you compound that fact by the desire of the upper basin, (Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico) that we in the lower basin don't make a call on the river, if you will. In other words, create a confrontation with the basin and force the upper basin to cut off uses in order to meet their delivery obligations to the lower basin and to Mexico. In order to avoid that, we have to have a back-up system when and if a drought happens. Quite honestly, it's not a question of if it's a question of when. Where do we go? There is not enough water in our basin for us to be able—it's only 10% of our supply. And you can't supply 100% of the demand with 10% of the supply. There are limitations to how much you can bank in this ground-water basin. And we've been very aggressive. We have about 300,000 acres feet banked in this ground-water basin. But with access to other parts of the state, that are separate and apart from the Colorado River, we have opportunities to back up the supply in times of drought. We have opportunities to store water in basins other than our own that don't require a Colorado River exchange, because if the Colorado River ever gets that bad, (and to say that it won't would be irresponsible) then we have a bank, if you will—a back-up supply to protect the health and safety of southern Nevada—be it Henderson Las Vegas, North Las Vegas or Boulder City. That is probably the most important part of this project from my vantage point. In the short term, yes it will provide additional supplies to southern Nevada. There is a range of water supply available in those basins that the state engineer has to evaluate. There is a low and a high—we estimate that when you combine all six basins, that we have filed and are pursuing, it's anywhere from 125 to 180,000 acre-feet. So in the short term it will provide additional supplies to us. But we know that in the long run all of the metropolitan areas in the lower basin will be turning their eyes to the ocean. In fact, Nevada is paying for a historic seven-state study of what waters can be developed to augment the supplies of the Colorado River. Whether that's ocean de-salting, in-land de-salting, cold bed methane in Wyoming, it doesn't matter. There are no limits on putting together a matrix of all possibilities and then evaluating the feasibility of those. So in the long term we will be getting additional supplies from the Colorado River, of that I'm sure. In the short term, however, we need to develop these supplies, use the supplies safely and responsibly and then one day, and we have offered this to White Pine County, that say in seventy to seventy-five years when they have grown in Ely to a point where Steptoe Valley, which is the valley that Ely lies in, and which we have no filings in, exceeds (the demand exceeds the supply in that basin) we concede waters to White Pine County. And we have offered. The state engineer grants permanent water rights, but if there is one thing I have learned in this business, this notion of permanency is really flawed. We're the victim of permanent of allocations because no one can look in a crystal ball today and envision what the world's going to look like in seventy or seventy-five years. We also offered to White Pine County… it's not a matter of "trust us!" We're not asking you to trust us. We're asking you to participate. In other words, why not create a two-county group, if you will, that every year have the responsibility to approve a pumping strategy. So if there is a drought, or if there is a need to re-charge more aggressively in any basin, if there are some danger signals that begin to emerge, you can participate in helping forge backing off pumping in certain areas, which we will have the flexibility to do. That's what makes this different from what I call the Owens Valley model.
Interviewer: Is that a legitimate parallel to this situation?
Mulroy: The Owens Valley comparison is one that is always brought up when we talk about this project. And quite frankly, the Owens Valley was developed by Los Angeles in the early part of the last century. There were no environmental laws on the books. The values that we as a country and as the west embraced were very different than they are today. And part of our objective in developing these water supplies in Lincoln and White Pine County, is to once and for all relegate Owens Valley to it's rightful place in history with the dinosaur and the cave-man. Waters can no longer be developed that way. We envision a much more actively managed, through participation with the rural counties where this project will be a benefit to them and a benefit to us. We know that our number one and two responsibility is to not harm the environment, and to no harm the ranching and farming operations. That is going to be difficult for some people to believe which is why we have offered them a seat at the table, and said, "Help us do this!" I think if it's approached right, with the right attitude, it would be brazen of us to just go up into rural Nevada and say, "We're the big bad Las Vegas, and we're going to stake our claim on waters, and to hell with you!" That's not what we're trying to say. What we're saying is that is the only way Nevada water law has always worked. And that's the only place that Nevada, as a state, can develop additional water supplies. When you look at Fernley, which is a community up in the northern part of Nevada, which has experienced some significant growth south of Reno. They have filed for one hundred thousand-acre feet in an adjacent ground-water basin. When you look at Reno... Reno was looking to bring waters in from Honey Lake Valley, which is in Northern Warshall County. That's the way Nevada has to function, or Nevada has no future. This is an issue for the entire state. We're not fortunate like Colorado or Utah, to have an abundance of streams that run through out state. We're the most arid state in the union. We have to find a safe and responsible way to develop our ground water supplies. So knowing that, it puts a whole different significance on our ability to develop these water supplies.
Interviewer: Why do you think that some of the ranchers and residents are so upset with this issue? Do you think those are legitimate complaints?
Mulroy: That's fair. If I were a rancher in White Pine County, I would share their concerns. In the absence of anything else to go on, I would be equally worried. The only example out there is Owens Valley, and I would be terrified that my way of life would be destroyed. I think knowing that was why we offered them the ability to participate forever in the management of those resources, which is not something we have to do. We have not tried to rollover or bully them. We have simply, in every way we know how, tried to find a way for them to be able to alleviate their fears. I think you're not going to find complete unanimity in those areas about how they feel about that. But if I'm threatened and somebody gives me an opportunity to protect myself and mitigates those fears that I have of being emasculated in the future, of losing all say, then I have to start looking at that a little differently. And I think that's where we were encouraged when we went up to White Pine County. We offered the review committee, and we offered the 75- year review, the ceding of the water rights back to White Pine County. Those to me are the enablers, and that's the issue that we have to get through in order to have any other meaningful dialogue around this.
Interviewer: Tell me about surplus water issue. One of things that they told me, is they don't feel that there is a lot of surplus water. Address that concern for me.
Mulroy: I think from their experience pumping, their wells are not very deep. They don't have the same ability for re-charge that we do. In the environment that they have experienced, they've probably seen a higher degree of vulnerability for the ground water basin. On the other hand I think they overstate it too, and that's natural. We're going to have to step through this one step at a time.
Interviewer: Lets start out about the topic of water grab.
Mulroy: Yes, I have heard over and over again it described as a water grab, and I have to smile. The only reason it's called a water grab is because it's southern Nevada. No one is calling Reno's importation of honey-lake water a water grab. No one is calling
Interviewer: What do you see the impact being on say, Great Basin National Park or Fish Springs National Wild-life Refuge?
Mulroy: None. I see no impact on either the Great Basin National Park or the Fish Springs Refuge by this project. And I think you need to look at the agreement that we just negotiated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife about protecting the head-waters of the Muddy river, and the extent to which we are willing to go to make sure the environment is not devastated. We have entered into a multi-party agreement with U.S. Fish and Wildlife and all the other pumpers--Coyote Springs investment, the Indian tribe, to protect the head-waters of the Muddy. We've gone so far as to look to acquire eleven hundred acres of land that is the habitat area around the base in the Muddy river, and we are committed to spending what it takes to build the fish barriers to prevent the base from being devastated by the Tilapia and other non-indigenous species. So we're willing to do what it takes to protect the environment. We just need to be afforded the opportunity to do that.
Interviewer: Las Vegas is one of the fastest growing areas of the country. What happens to an economy when it is artificially stopped and started?
Mulroy: When you look around at areas that have attempted to stop their economy, they've only been marginally successful. The methods they usually choose are ones that make life more uncomfortable for the existing residents, but do little to change the overall growth. It may mute it somewhat, but it doesn't stop it altogether. What is scary to me… you know we have in the west have looked at growth as an in-migration issue. When you look at California, and you look at their growth projections, I was flabbergasted to hear that California's millions that they expect to add over the course of the next ten to twenty years is mostly due to birthrates exceeding death-rates. It's not due to in-migration, so the dynamic changes. You have an economy like southern Nevada that fuels the rest of the state. It is the economic engine for the entire state of Nevada. If you were to artificially shut it down, the dominoes would fall throughout the state of Nevada. Nevada's sales tax dollars is what builds roads in northern Nevada, pays for school, and they don't like to hear it, but when you look at the numbers, that's what happens. Once you've stopped it, or tinkered with it or tried to stop it, to kick it back in and say, "I think we made a mistake, lets try and reinvigorate this, has never really worked well, and it takes a long, long time to create that same level of economic interest and economic trust because once a community has done that, who wants to invest there. So the risk to the state of Nevada is pretty significant if you were to do that. There is one community here in southern Nevada, a water-authority member agency that is very much a no-growth community. It is Boulder City. But they own every square inch of land within the city boundaries. They are not subject to any federal land releases, and they are a bedroom community. The people who live in Boulder City work in Las Vegas, Henderson, and North Las Vegas. So if you have that kind of environment, you can create a no-growth because you can have that economic hub. So it's a risky proposition. We have very strict guidelines on water use for existing residences and new residences. Our existing residences have been put on a very strict watering schedule. In the summer months they can't water between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. In the fall and in the spring they are only allowed to water three days a week. In winter they are only allowed to water once a week on an assigned day. We have a four-tier rate structure that gets more expensive the higher you get up in those rate structures, and we've narrowed those tiers to where you jump through those rate thresholds much more quickly. Probably one of our most successful programs has been paying our customers to take their grass out. We have spent almost 57 million dollars paying our customers a dollar per square foot to remove turf. We have put the golf courses on a water budget. They cannot exceed 6.3 acre-feet per acre of golf course. If they do, they pay a penalty at the end of the year, which is a multiple of their highest monthly bill, which will run them into the millions. We have fines for wasting water and allowing it to run down the street or watering on the wrong day. We have restrictions on new construction. You can have no turf in the front yard, and only 50% of the back yard can be turf. And the reason why we're focusing on outside is because that's where we lose the water. I said earlier, we're 100% recycled. So the only real consumptive use we have is what we use on our landscaping. So we have some very strict rules in place and we put them in place for purposes of the drought. But the board right now is going through a process to make those regulations permanent, because in truth they haven't hurt anyone's quality of life. They are actually more indicative of what a desert dweller should live like, and it's a cultural thing. I think with every generation, the awareness around water use will be significantly heightened, and people will become more aware and stingy about how they utilize that water resource.
Interviewer: What is the biggest use in Las Vegas and how can that be addressed?
Mulroy: The single biggest user of water is turf. And we're not suggesting that every blade of grass be removed. But we need to be smart about where we put that turf. It's appropriate in parks, ball-fields, and backyards for children to play on and family recreation. But do we need it in the medians of streets? Do we need it on those narrow strips between the sidewalk and the block wall? There is so much attractive desert landscaping or drought-tolerant landscaping that can be put in place and can be fueled by drip irrigation. Like I said, we're paying to remove unnecessary turf and that's what has to be the focus, and people have to change their visual appreciation. You know, people move here from the east and their eyes are use to a vista that is very green. And all of a sudden that landscape changes. So they try to recreate the world from whence they came, and you can't do that. You can't live in defiance of the area that you are moving into. Las Vegans are beginning to appreciate the desert that they live in, and we're in the process of building a 180-acre preserve that will have a huge 78 piece, which is our endangered plants and animals where we're storing some original habitat. We will have a large desert botanical garden. We will have one of our flood channels re-done as a (see-en-i-ca) where the storm runoff water will fuel the see-en-i-ca. We will have a sustainability center where we educate, not only the youth but the community in general about what it takes to live sustainably in the desert. We're building a 180-acre preserve off of Alta, which is going to highlight desert living. It will have 70 acres of a restored preserve with endangered plants and animals that were naturally found here. It will have a 12-acre botanical garden. It will have a sustainability desert living center where people can learn what it takes to live sustainably in a desert community. It will have a visitors- center which celebrates the history of Las Vegas, both geologically and historically and then grounds you right back into today and what it takes to live today. We think it's going to have a tremendous impact on the fiber of Las Vegas. People have moved here in such large numbers over the last fifteen years that a sense of place and a sense of home needs to be created. We're not just a community of transients or of temporary residents. We're a community. The key for us is that people take ownership of the community. You can't live responsibly if you don't feel that sense of responsibility—if you don't feel that tie and need to be part of the community fiber. And so we're hoping, and we're very optimistic that it will work—that starting to create those kinds of natural cultural centers that are really educational will help significantly in our long-term goal to change how people view living in the desert.
The Las Vegas wash is the drain for the entire valley—all groundwater, be it shallow or deeper ground water, all storm water, and all wastewater. Exit the Las Vegas valley via the Las Vegas wash into Lake Mead. As the wastewater flows and increased over the years, it was starting to really create huge head cutting in the wash. The wetlands that had existed there in the '70's and '80's were disappearing. So, in partnership with the Federal and the State government, we brought twenty seven agencies together, all with some responsibility to the wash, and created essentially a master-plan on how to preserve that wash—to stop the head-cutting, stop the silt going into Lake Mead, and recreate the wetlands that once were there. We have already completed nine structures. We have thirteen more to build, and you wouldn't believe the difference of what the Las Vegas wash looked like ten years ago, and what it looks like today. We have been committed to that and now we have quite a bird sanctuary out there and the wetlands park that exists out there is a marvelous community asset.
Interviewer: Lets talk about the trust issues with the ranchers.
Mulroy: I'm not asking them to trust me. Why would I ask them to trust me? I'm asking them to participate and trust themselves. Trust yourself, in your community to always have what is the best for your community at heart and take a seat at the table to protect those interests. If I were them and someone said to me, trust me I wouldn't believe it, so why would I expect them, whether I'm sincerely motivated or not, it's not a matter of trust. It's a matter of "I don't trust Utah!" "I don’t' trust Colorado!" "I don't trust Wyoming!" I don't dislike them, but they're always, always going to look out for the interest of the residents in those communities. White Pine County residents need to assert themselves in the same way, and protect the interests of the residents of White Pine County in the long term by being a participant, and participate in the process.
Interviewer: What do you see for the issue of water in the West? What do you think will happen in the next ten to twenty years?
Mulroy: We're going to get a lot smatter in the cities about water. I think we'll forge some creative partnerships with agricultural communities. The seeds for those have already been planted. San Diego was investing in the imperial irrigation district--lining canals and creating efficiencies and then enjoying the benefits of those waters that are saved. There are drought opportunities through dryer options that we can embark on with agriculture and I think that one of the ironies is that a mutual dependency will be created over the next fifty years where the agricultural areas will be dependent on the cities and the cities will be dependent on the agricultural areas. I also see the cities becoming much more aggressive in the areas of conservation and I think every generation tries to push that issue out in front of them because it's not a fun one to embark on with your community. I'm married to a native Las Vegan, and I get an earful about conservation and having to change, and those in my generation don't want to change, you know. But I think it's inevitable. It has to happen or we will run out. We will be much more creative and aggressive when it comes to ocean de-salting. We will have formed strategic partnerships between states and I think more and more, you will see water being managed more regionally than in tight little defined government units because it won't work any other way, so I'm optimistic. It's a political issue so we just need to find ways to overcome those political obstacles. I'm not sure I understand from the ranchers, how they see their lifestyle and their heritage lost. It defies logic to me. If they choose to continue that lifestyle, and those communities cherish that lifestyle, and there are protections put in place that don't cause a disruption in their water supply—how that lifestyle will be eroded. Now if that is a fear of economic development. If that is a fear that all of a sudden people will be moving into their communities that will change their communities, that's a mixed message. On the one hand, White Pine County desperately wants economic development. They want a job base. They don't want their children to leave because they can't find employment. On the other hand there's fear, so I think you have a tug and pull going on in those communities between those that want them to have a future, and those that want nothing to change. They need to make that decision.
Interviewer: What do you see as your main job in the mission of the Water Authority?
Mulroy: The main job of the Water Authority is to protect the health and safety of the residents of Southern Nevada, and to make sure we have done everything humanly possible to protect both water quantity and quality, be it through conservation, be it through new resources, be it through whatever tools we have available, to be a responsible partner in any relationship that we get into, be it on the Colorado river or within the state of Nevada where we share resources. The days of winners and losers, which is a phrase that I heard emanating out of the state of California when I first started in this business, (and would just rub in my ear) are over. That's not our ethic. When we enter and area where we partner with somebody, then we assume partial responsibility for their future as well. That to me is responsible water development. That to me affords you the opportunity to be responsible to the environment, and responsible to the community. You have a larger mission. The days where water agencies were simply pipes and pumps and motors and making sure that those get to the home, are over. We are stewards of the environment, whether we like it or not. We can't just take blindly. We have to give back, and we have a preservation responsibility. So to me a water agency in this century is a much larger job than simply delivering water to customers, although at its core that's where it starts.
Interviewer: Lets talk about the casino water use. I think people have the idea… traveling along the strip and you see all of these water features… talk to me about where that water comes from.
Mulroy: The hotels have been wonderful partners. I remember when we were first bludgeoned for the fountains on the Las Vegas strip and the perception of water waste, and I had a conversation with Steve Wynn and he said, "Well what kind of water can I use?" So when he built Treasure Island, he started it. He put a full wastewater treatment plant in the basement of his parking garage. He uses both gray, and shallow-system water. Southern Nevada has a bed of caliche that is under it, so a lot of water that is put on landscaping on the west side of town, won't percolate all the way down to the ground water basin. It gets trapped above the caliche, and it's highly contaminated and it travels across the valley and exits via the Las Vegas wash. That's nuisance water, but it's a resource, and he captures portions of that, blends it with his gray water in this treatment facility, and that's what he puts in his water features. Every strip hotel that has put in a water feature has had to develop a conservation plan. They have to present a water use plan, and they've had to identify what kinds of water and how they're going to use that water for those features. So they are some of the most responsible customers we have. They use 80% of their water inside. They're the exact reverse of our residential customer who uses 70% of their water outside where it is lost, and only thirty percent inside where it is recaptured and reused. The hotels use 80% inside. They are the main generator of return-flow credits and only use 20% of their water outside.
Interviewer: What do we know about the science of hydrology of this basin aquifer?
Mulroy: Ever since the days of the MX missile project, which was in the 70's when the MX program was going to be developed in Lincoln County, the state of Nevada every year put up money and jointly studied with the USGS—the Basins. We have taken that even further. So for decades there has been research done on those basins. Now if I'm a scientist, especially in an area like hydrology, there will never be enough data for me to definitively say, "This is the amount of water…" and I don't think it's a static number to begin with… that's why doing test pumping in those basins is that important, because until we actually drill wells and stress the system, we won't know what the effect is. The state engineers require that we embark of three years of test pumping at Coyote Springs before he issues any more ground water permits there, so that we can start measuring from a real usage perspective, what the impact on the carbon it is. For decades we have said the flow of the Colorado River is about fifteen, sixteen million acre feet, and then all of a sudden we've experienced a drought and a different weather pattern, and we've began to question that. Is that really the flow of the Colorado River, or is the average more like thirteen million? I think what that is teaching us is that number is not static, whether it's ground water, or whether it's surface water, it's going to change, and in any fifty year period, the average annual flow, or the average yield in a basin is going to be different. So how do you manage around that? How do you force re-charge into ground water basins that would otherwise simply lay on the ply(?) and evaporate, or manage partnerships on the river to where you can be adaptable--the static, reliable framework that water agencies have always functioned under—belt and suspenders. We have to have reliability. No surprises. Mother nature isn't that gracious. Mother nature is full of surprises… has to be replaced by being adaptable and flexible. If we can make that transition, then we can work through those ground-water issues as well, and there as been a lot of science. The ranchers have this notion that there is a number out there… a hard number. They see the basin as a bathtub and the spigot is turned on every year with so much and it goes in… yes you might have a drought. But you have a bathtub and how much you take out of that bathtub is what's going to have an effect, and they want the number of what is in that bathtub. It's going to change. Let me throw in another variable. Lets say… global warming… and I happen to believe that climate change is real. I'll just put that out there. I'm not going to argue about why it is or how it is, but there is a climate change that we're experiencing. Now lets overlay the over issue of hydrology and water resources in the west with the climate change that's occurring. And I happen to believe that we are experiencing a significant climate change, and I'm not going to get into why that is, or who the cause of it is, or how we're ultimately going to get out of it. Lets assume as a water manager I have to assume the worst and I have to look at what is happening around us and assume that climate change is happening. Well we have a reservoir system and a water management system that's built on snowmelt. In other words the snow accumulates in the winter months, it rapidly melts in the spring. It's more than the ground can absorb, and it runs off and creates the Colorado River and feeds ground water basins. If that falls on rain, there's going to be an impact on water resources. The ground is going to absorb more and we're not equipped to deal with it as rain. How does man intervene? How do we increase recharge into basins when we're faced with rain rather than snow? It's going to have an impact, and it's going to force us even more to begin to work together and again will re-define hydrology. I've had this conversation with friends of mine at the GS and the Interior time and time again. There is never enough data because the data always changes, and every time you add ten years, you would have generated new statistics based on a new weather pattern, or a new rainfall during that ten-year period. So it's not magic of finding the number. The magic lies in managing that basin moving forward year to year adaptively to be in sync with what is happening in the environment.