Patricia Mulroy

The woman whose job it is to make sure water flows when you turn on the tap talks about the future of our most precious resource

Patricia Mulroy has been entrusted to do an almost impossible task—make it rain in the desert. Metaphorically, at least. Her job as general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority puts her in the position of balancing the resource of shrinking Lake Mead with the needs of a growing region. As a 35-year resident of Las Vegas, Mulroy has become intimately acquainted with the Valley’s water situation. She became the general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District in 1989 and gained a reputation of being Southern Nevada’s water warrior. She has ruffled more than a few feathers with her aggressive bargaining and the proposal of an in-state water pipeline designed to siphon water from northeastern valleys to our own. In January, the Nevada Supreme Court reversed groundwater awards, setting the project back, but the tenacious Mulroy remains optimistic. Southern Nevada, she notes, will have to get its water from somewhere.

Is our water situation really dire?

We have no alternatives. We don’t have an ocean that sits [by] our state. We don’t have any agricultural land. The different between us and Arizona, for example, is that Arizona is also an inland state and they have lots of their water tied up in agriculture. The cities will lease the water from the farmers and use that agricultural water to protect them if their main source is threatened by drought. We don’t have that. Southern California has a pipeline up to Northern California, and it has the ocean, has the groundwater basin and it is really diversified where it gets its water from.

What happens if Lake Mead’s water level continues to drop?

In 2007, the state signed an agreement and we all came out of that knowing how much we would have to cut back our use, so the community has been getting ready for that through the conservation efforts. You won’t feel anything as a customer when we pass 1,075 [feet above sea level], 1,050 feet or 1,025 feet, which are the three levels. It’s how much are we going to have to cut once we get to 1,025, and the states weren’t prepared back in 2007 to have that conversation. We’ve been saying to the other states, and to the interior, we need to have that conversation now. We’re not coming out of this drought very quickly and the chances of us getting to 1,025 are far greater than we thought they were when we signed the 2007 agreement.

How has climate change affected where we get our water?

Climate change plays an enormous role. Climate scientists are telling us that the Western United States is going to get drier. Oregon and Washington will get wetter, but the southern portion of the West will get drier. That is critical to the western Rockies, which feed the Colorado River. If they are going to go drier, and some say by 30 percent, you’ve got a river that has allocated more water than it has in it. When they divided up the Colorado River in 1922, they used the 50 years of flow history that they had, which happened to be 50 of the highest flow years ever on the river.

Is a national water project realistic?

I think this will become a federal dialogue because it won’t just be Las Vegas. You’re talking about water supply to the seventh-largest economy in the world, which is Southern California. The United States isn’t going to allow that to shut down. You’re not going to cut the water off to all the cities in the central part of Arizona. Thirty million people depend on the water from the Colorado River, and it is an enormous part of the country’s food supply. One agricultural district in Southern California alone is 11 percent of this county’s fresh winter fruits and vegetables. Are you going to let that fall off the table?

What do you like about this job?

It actually solves problems, and it makes a difference. It is very rewarding to get former enemies to work together and to find common solutions. It is an issue that I’ve begun to feel is the silent threat to the country. It’s not our energy supply, it’s our water. And we’re only beginning to wake up to that. Dealing with something that is really critical for a country whose population is going to grow by 250 to 300 million people is essential. That’s what keeps me going.

You have a reputation for being tenacious. Is it deserved?

One of my favorite phrases is “failure is not an option,” so if that translates to tenacity, so be it. I don’t think anyone who sits in the job can afford to not be tenacious. It takes a long time to work through some of the political mountains you have to climb on this issue. It takes a lot of time to build facilities and to design facilities so you can’t be wishy-washy. You have to be tenacious.

What is the public’s role in the water situation?

We have to become far more conscious about how we use our water resources. Americans use far more water per capita than any other country in the world, and we’ve had the luxury of being able to do that. Our population has grown to a point where the consequences of climate change are coming home to roost. We need to rethink what it means to have quality of life. When I first got here 34 years ago, everyone had a single-family house on a quarter acre that was surrounded by grass. That’s not sustainable. We’re going more from a suburban environment to an urban environment, and developers are looking at how to build more sustainable communities, and we as individual users finally will have the control because we have the hand on the spigot.

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