In the fall of 1973, a petite 19-year-old with intense blue eyes drove from Wiesbaden to Bonn, then the capital of West Germany. Her father, an American civilian Air Force employee, had gotten her an interview for a job at the U.S. Embassy, potentially the start of her dream career with the State Department. The official was impressed by the young woman, and her father was a respected friend. But before she left his office, he told her that no matter how well she did in her studies at the University of Munich—and she was doing very well—his team would never hire her. She asked why, puzzled.
“Because,” the official explained. “You’re a woman. Women cause international embarrassments. Women get pregnant. We shy away from hiring women.”
“I have never been so mad in my whole life,” recalls Pat Mulroy, now 60. “I chewed my father out—oh, God, did I chew my father out. And I got pigheaded.”
That wouldn’t be the last time she was underestimated by the predominantly male powers that be, but she would eventually have the last laugh. Disappointed by her run-in with the Embassy official, the young Mulroy, whose mother was German, shifted her academic focus from political science to German literature. At 21, she moved to Las Vegas to continue her studies at UNLV, where she got a master’s degree in 1975. Her specialty in German expressionism then took her to Stanford University, but she had to leave there before completing her Ph.D., when family finances forced her to get a full-time job.
Mulroy returned to Las Vegas, where friends from UNLV said the new county manager, Richard Bunker, was hiring. She landed a position in his office and, before long, was part of the department’s legislative team.
Over the following decade, Mulroy worked her way up through the local bureaucracy to a position as deputy general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District. In 1989, the district’s board of directors was looking for a new leader, one who was less engineer, more politician. They hired Mulroy. In 1991, she spearheaded the creation of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which she has led ever since. She might not have gotten her dream job at the State Department, but she ended up in a high-profile public-service position nevertheless. Today, she’s known as the “water czar.”
Whether they love her or loathe her—few who know her fall anywhere in between—most people agree that Mulroy commands great respect and wields enormous power. Over the last quarter-century, she has become intimately familiar with the complex field of water policy. She has brokered or been closely involved with dozens of water deals, including some that brought state, federal and international players to the table. Her acumen has not been lost on national observers. In a 2009 High Country News story, the renowned environmental journalist Matt Jenkins summed up her clout: “Mulroy has largely set the terms of Western water over the past two decades.”
She did it by forging close ties to the political elite, namely with her mentor, Bunker, a longtime insider who held a top position at the Colorado River Commission of Nevada, and with U.S. Senator Harry Reid. Such relationships helped Mulroy with the heavy lifts for which she’s known—getting 10 percent of the proceeds from public lands sales diverted to the SNWA through the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act, for instance; or getting a 180-acre, $250 million monument to desert living (with no slot machines!), the Las Vegas Springs Preserve, built on the very land where the city was born.
This fall, Pat Mulroy announced she would step down from her positions at both the Las Vegas Valley Water District and SNWA on February 6. (John Entsminger, senior deputy manager of the authority, is her pick for a replacement.) Mulroy’s husband of 30 years, Robert, is reported to be ailing, though she declined to give a specific reason for her departure. She did, however, reflect on what has driven her quarter-century of accomplishments at the water authority: “I don’t like failure,” she says. “I have a huge competitive streak. … I was an abomination as a soccer mom, because I would get so frustrated if things weren’t going well.”
Mulroy’s determination does have a dark side. For every former teacher of her two now-adult children who marvels at how the water czar found time to volunteer at their school, there are a dozen environmentalists who charge that Mulroy failed to meaningfully transform the water-wasting culture of Las Vegas. For every member of her Catholic church who shares her admiration of the current Pope’s advocacy for the common man, there’s a bevy of small-town ranchers and civic leaders who say she’s undermining their livelihood. Mulroy secured enough water to serve SNWA’s customers in the 1990s and 2000s, when growth was booming, but many people believe the long-term costs of that growth will outweigh the benefits.
It could be decades before we know whether those critics are right, and, consequently, what Mulroy’s legacy will be. But even in the immediate future, trouble looms. A year ago, the Bureau of Reclamation published a report on the local water system confirming what most water experts already knew: Demand is likely to outstrip supply in the next 50 years. Climate change and a 14-year drought are hastening a drop in the water level at Lake Mead, while the SNWA’s construction project for a third intake at the reservoir undergoes a seemingly endless series of delays, unforeseen obstacles and cost overruns. And in early December, the authority suffered a legal setback in its effort to secure more groundwater within the state.
Mulroy says that her drive to win—win for her organization and her community—increases proportionately to the challenges she faces. But in the game of Southwest water management, she’s the player with the worst hand: the top official in the state with the least water in the entire nation. Anyone else would fold.
Does the water czar have one more card up her sleeve?
Mulroy’s success as a deal-maker has given her critics plenty of fodder for crying foul. Some of the cases they point to as evidence for corruption could be chalked up to the common failings of bureaucracy. One example: the Eastern Nevada ranches that the SNWA bought in order to tap into the water flowing underneath them. According to news reports, the agency paid many times the market value for the ranches and isn’t managing them very well. In other dealings, it’s hard not to see some shade. Mulroy facilitated the genesis of Coyote Springs, Harvey Whittemore’s controversial development on the border of Clark and Lincoln counties. In the process, she secured water rights for the land on which the project, now defunct, sits.
But Mulroy is an expert at dispelling doubt. She deploys her keen intellect and mastery of information most people don’t understand to deflect scrutiny. At times, the approach has bordered on condescension—as in one oft-cited case, when she implied a journalist questioning her at a public forum was either stupid or lying. And she’s known as a hard-nosed negotiator who won’t take no for an answer.
So it’s surprising to hear how much fun Mulroy can be behind closed doors. Around her house, for instance, she’s known to spontaneously break into dance. Once, after a dinner out with pals, she was bragging about how she could do the can-can. “She swung her leg up in the air and fell on her ass,” recalls a close friend. Everyone, including Mulroy, had a good laugh.
Certainly, the water czar couldn’t have gotten where she is today without a healthy dose of charm, and her first major achievement—the one she says she still values most—required all of her grace. When she took over at the water district in 1989, it was a mess. Mulroy’s predecessor, Patrick Pine, had been handing out water commitments (called “will-serves”) to developers pell-mell, offering more of the resource than the utility actually had at its disposal and not keeping good records of what was promised. Lenders backing the projects got nervous, and the district attorney put the water district on notice.
At the same time, Mulroy says, Pine had “declared open war” on the other local municipalities, which managed their own separate water agencies. In a use-it-or-lose-it environment, each town—from Mesquite to Henderson—scrambled to maximize its yearly allotment; legend has it Boulder City went as far as opening fire hydrants and letting water run down the streets.
The origin of this madness goes back to 1922, year of the federal Colorado River Compact. As the center of the court decisions, legislation and regulations comprising the so-called “Law of the River,” the Compact apportioned Colorado River flow among the seven states that depend on it: Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, known as the “upper basin states”; and Arizona, California and Nevada—the “lower basin states.” The upper and lower basin each got an annual allotment of 7.5 million acre-feet (one acre-foot is approximately the amount needed to supply two homes with water for a year). In 1928, the lower basin states officially divvied up their share: 4.4 million acre-feet for California, 2.8 million for Arizona and 300,000 for Nevada.
The Silver State’s meager serving made sense in the ’20s, because of its relatively low population (78,000) and lack of agriculture. But by the late ’80s, spurred by a boom in casino development, the growth rate in Southern Nevada began to approach double digits. By 1990, the population of Clark County was nearing 900,000. The board of the water district recognized that the people coming to the city to work at the new megaresorts would need homes with water hookups, and that fractious local politics were diminishing their prospects for securing it.
“The first thing I did when I got this job was go to all the other jurisdictions, hat in hand, and apologize,” Mulroy says. “I said, ‘Let’s start over.’ I took full responsibility. It was our fault.”
At the same time, Mulroy put a moratorium on will-serves. Not only would it give her office time to sort through the five years worth of commitments the district had made, but it would also pressure the business community to support water agency consolidation. The strategy worked. Within two years, the Southern Nevada Water Authority was born, and Mulroy was named its general manager. While separate municipalities would continue to manage their respective water utilities, the authority would handle regional activities, such as enforcing conservation, managing groundwater, building infrastructure and negotiating with outside entities.
This move, Mulroy says, was the key to everything else she’s done. It gave the water authority a voice in Carson City, which led to control of the Colorado River Commission of Nevada, which, in turn, meant it was the state’s dominating voice in matters pertaining to the Law of the River. The clout allowed Mulroy to forge the partnerships necessary to get the water her jurisdiction craved—partnerships with local, state and federal officials, as well as her counterparts in other urban water agencies.
Soon, she became a major player in Colorado River politics, hammering out deals that would help Greater Las Vegas thrive. For one agreement, completed in 2001, Mulroy spearheaded an unprecedented cooperation among the lower basin states to gain access to surplus Colorado River water. Later, as the drought that began in 2000 gripped the region, it became clear that surpluses should no longer spur updates to the Law of the River. Mulroy pushed for both upper and lower basin states to cooperate on an agreement, signed in 2007, to share shortages through a complex system of conservation measures and water-banking. (Ironically, Nevada’s paltry share of Colorado River water served as leverage in these negotiations, since the state with the fastest-growing population in the nation could take its case for more water to the Supreme Court if our neighbors failed to comply.) In 2012, a cross-border constellation of local, state and federal officials brought Mexico into the new reality, setting yet another precedent by amending the U.S.-Mexico water treaty of 1944.
But the SNWA didn’t just give Mulroy and her team more power on the Colorado River; it also made them the 800-pound gorilla in state water politics.
“There was a huge cultural change in water coming off [the creation of the SNWA],” says Clark County Commissioner Larry Brown, who became the agency’s first Carson City staff member in 1991. “That was a critical time, when we had to start thinking about living in the most arid city in the country with an increasing growth rate. Pat was not only the face of the authority, but also behind the scenes driving policy.”
Mulroy was motivated both by the development community, which wanted to get bulldozers rolling on the developments whose will-serves had been put on hold, and by the other Colorado River states. They wouldn’t entertain requests for more river water until they were convinced SNWA had secured all of its available in-state resources. Under Mulroy’s direction, SNWA’s Carson City team went to work on legislation that would allow it to acquire unclaimed water wherever engineers could find it. Their search would lead environmental writer Jenkins, writing in High Country News, to describe the team as “experts at digging change out of the couch.”
It would also lead to the case where Mulroy’s determination bled into hubris: the so-called “water grab” from the basin and range land in central and eastern Nevada.
In 1989, Mulroy filed applications for water rights to some 800,000 acre-feet of water in aquifers under the verdant area encompassing Cave, Lake, Delamar, Dry Lake, Spring and Snake valleys. Terrified that they would end up like residents of California’s Owens Valley—a farming community that dried up in the early 1900s after the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power pumped its groundwater and shipped it to the growing metropolis via the L.A. Aqueduct—thousands of environmentalists, farmers, outdoor recreation enthusiasts and other concerned citizens lodged protests.
The water pipeline, which SNWA calls its Groundwater Development Project, has been the source of near-constant controversy ever since, but under Mulroy’s direction, the water authority has pushed ahead, plowing through or maneuvering around administrative, environmental, legal and even physical obstacles. It has spent billions of dollars acquiring land (including the ranches mentioned above), buying water rights, studying the hydrology and formulating plans, not to mention defending itself against legal assaults on the project. The SNWA estimates the project will cost around $3 billion, but critics put the number closer to $15 billion.
Still, the highest cost may end up being to Mulroy’s reputation. Generous detractors portray her as the grade-school bully shaking down the puny kid for his lunch money; to the less charitable, she’s an imperialist feeding a reckless extraction economy.
“I think one thing that characterizes [Mulroy’s] management style is her big presence, and her strong ego,” says environmental attorney Simeon Herskovits, who represents the Great Basin Water Network, as well as several local governments, irrigation companies, ranch owners and nonprofits that oppose the water pipeline. “She’s a little single-minded and insular in her thinking once she sees her credibility invested. I don’t personally have any animus toward her at all; my brief encounters with her in hearings affirm that she’s smart, politically smooth and savvy, and probably not devoid of merits and virtues. But on this issue, she’s been arrogant and dishonest and untrustworthy toward the rural communities.”
Residents of these communities openly express their scorn for Mulroy, citing her public statements about their insignificance relative to Southern Nevada, the state’s economic engine. They believe that, contrary to SNWA’s assurances, if the pipeline opens, Las Vegas will suck every last drop of water from under their feet. And even if the plan never goes forward, some say irreparable damage has already been done to their way of life. Potential businesses, investors, residents and visitors will stay away, perceiving towns such as Baker and Ely as endangered—on the brink of losing their water.
The woman who once dreamed of a career in the Foreign Service has been able to win over foes her whole career with a mix of diplomacy and smarts. But the one that got away still bothers her: a ranch owner in the Snake Valley who has poured enormous resources into fighting the water pipeline.
“The thing that makes me probably the saddest is that you could never sit down and have a conversation with Dean Baker,” Mulroy says. “It got emotional, and it got irrational. I’ll never forget our last conversation, not too long ago up at the Legislature. He was gigging me before one of my testimonies. I said, ‘Dean, you and I, we have to find a way to coexist.’ And he said, ‘We will never, ever, ever coexist.’ And when that wall goes up, when it becomes that absolute, then there’s no opportunity.”
Mulroy’s thinking on water policy has evolved over the last two and a half decades in one significant way: She no longer sees water issues as urban-versus-rural or development-versus-conservation dichotomies. She believes a sustainable future depends on all interests learning to coexist, and that technologies permitting humans to grow more crops with less water will be key. Her work reflects this evolution.
She has also backed off the Groundwater Development Project, describing it as a last resort to be turned to only if the drought continues and no other solutions can be found for securing more Colorado River water. She says what happens with the “in-state project,” as she calls it, depends on what happens with the Law of the River. And on that, she won’t speculate. Prognosticators will be keeping their eyes on the snowfall in the Rockies … and on Lake Mead. A drop in the reservoir’s water level below 1,075 feet would trigger emergency measures, according to the 2007 agreement. The water level is currently 1,104 feet. At 1,050 feet, Southern Nevada’s second water intake into the reservoir would no longer function.
In this, Mulroy finds herself in a tough, but familiar, spot: pulled between factions that are functionally and philosophically at odds. Rural Nevadans don’t want to see water extracted from their area; the other Colorado River states expect Nevada to live within its own means; both sides look at Southern Nevada’s fountains, golf courses, lawns and pools, and see a wasteful community that doesn’t deserve to be bailed out.
Environmentalists, meanwhile, have a long laundry list of complaints about Mulroy’s agency. In order to stretch Nevada’s 300,000 acre-foot per year allotment as far as possible, the SNWA made a deal with the federal government in the early ’90s so it could take advantage of a notable provision in the Law of the River: States can use more than their designated share if they put an equivalent amount of the overage back into the pool—a system called “return flow credits.” The authority treats its wastewater and returns it to Lake Mead for reuse by California and Arizona, which allows us to use more than our maximum allotted amount.
Mulroy points to this water-recycling program as a major environmental achievement, but there’s no getting around the fact that it doesn’t encourage people to use less water in their homes. Mulroy herself told U.S. News & World Report in 2007 that she could shower for as long as she wanted, knowing that all that water returns to the river. Beyond that, protectors of the wash that carries urban effluent to Lake Mead (and consequently attracts migratory birds and other wildlife) lament its degradation, some of which SNWA has remediated. And there is widespread concern about the effects that treated wastewater may have on consumers and the ecosystem.
Conservationists wish Mulroy had taken a more proactive, advisory role with the planning and development commissions of the municipalities the SNWA serves. Why, they ask, didn’t she convince them there wouldn’t be enough water for the subdivisions they were building in the 2000s, rather than simply doing their bidding and scouting out new water sources to facilitate unbridled growth?
To this, Mulroy’s reply is threefold. First, she was acting on the orders of elected officials; if the community wanted construction to slow down, it would have put people in office who represented that view. Indeed, the voices yelling “Hold on a minute!” when Steve Wynn was building The Mirage and Treasure Island—and the suburbs began to bloom—were few and far between.
Second, the idea that a utility can slow down growth is misguided, Mulroy says emphatically: “I’ve heard this so many times, that you can stop growth with water. OK, first of all, no one’s ever done that successfully. And, secondly, how do you define growth. Tell me who constitutes growth? Is it the retiree who moves to Las Vegas? Is growth our children? … Do you get to pick and choose who comes in and who doesn’t? Who makes that decision? Do your kids get to stay or do they have to leave? Do we not allow businesses to come to Southern Nevada and provide employment? Do we stop them? How? What does growth mean?”
Finally, she says conservation has been part of her plan all along. Since the 1990s, when SNWA enacted its cash-for-grass program, it has paid homeowners $200 million to rip out their lawns and replace them with low-water landscaping. Meanwhile, Mulroy convinced the municipalities to place restrictions on the amount of grass new homes can have. This, plus public awareness about watering restrictions, low-flow fixtures and other measures led to a 33 percent reduction in total consumptive water use from 2002 to 2012, when the population saw a net increase of 25 percent, Entsminger says.
“Pat and I were comparing notes a lot about how to address water issues in Las Vegas,” says developer John Ritter, thinking back to the late 1990s. “She gave me a lot of pointers on how to make Mountain’s Edge more drought-tolerant. We ended up putting into our design the standards that ultimately were in the new ordinances. … We still use 25 percent less water than a typical master-planned community. And a lot of that was done hand in hand with Pat.”
Here, too, Mulroy finds herself in the middle—and on a personal level. She says it was a struggle to convince her own husband to replace hundreds of square feet of their lawn with xeriscaping, and she still occasionally catches him running irrigation on their off-days. “Old farts” like him, she notes, have staunchly resisted any restriction on their right to grass.
Nobody in Mulroy’s position could please everyone. On one hand, arguing that people will conserve what they perceive as valuable, critics say she should push the municipalities to raise rates in Southern Nevada, where they’ve been historically low compared to other Southwestern cities. On the other hand, each rate increase is attacked as a means of funding publicly unpopular initiatives, such as the Groundwater Development Project.
Even when it comes to Mulroy’s crowning achievement, the Las Vegas Springs Preserve, she can’t always win. The combination event center, museum, nature preserve and recreational facility opened in June 2007 to great fanfare. Hordes of press, dignitaries and stakeholders turned out to see the ambitious project, which Mulroy had billed, at its inception, as the Central Park of Las Vegas. People were justifiably impressed by the LEED Platinum-certified buildings, onsite wetlands water-recycling system and rooftop solar array, which proponents saw as game-changers in the Valley’s approach to cultural institutions. In the ensuing years, the facility has developed many sustainability programs to educate the public, particularly schoolchildren, on water conservation and general respect for the environment.
Still, a handful of detractors insist it’s little more than a PR project, designed to provide cover for a culture of waste—and, they sneer, the Springs Preserve is in the red.
Scot Rutledge, former executive director of the Nevada Conservation League, remembers the grand opening of the Springs Preserve and what it meant to Mulroy, his erstwhile nemesis: “They had this huge blowout celebration,” he recalls. “And afterward, I saw her, I believe, in a white dress, and she was carrying her shoes. It very much humanized her. Just like any other woman after a long day in heels, she took them off. I went to her and said, ‘Congratulations. This is a beautiful place.’ And she was genuinely pleased. She’s just like anybody else at the end of the day: Your feet hurt, you’re tired, and you want someone to pat you on the back and say, ‘Great job.’”
Pat Mulroy is tired. She’s been going, going, going, she says, feeling like she’s on a treadmill. But she’s not done. Not by a long shot. After taking some time to catch her breath, she’ll consider her next move. “I can’t just sit and watch the daisies grow,” she says. “I’m looking at my options now.”
She isn’t worried about the state in which she’s leaving the authority, and she’s confident in Entsminger’s ability to pick up where she left off. She also seems comfortable with where the community is headed, as far as water is concerned. She believes there will be plenty to support her children, who both still live here, and their children someday. She sees promise in younger generations, who embrace sustainability, want to live in harmony with nature and don’t mind giving up a little comfort for the sake of conservation.
Come to think of it, she says, she may put the knowledge she’s gained at the authority to work helping other communities. “I want, in some way, shape or form, to give back, either through a volunteer organization or something—doing something to help people who are still dying today on the planet from dirty water and from water-borne diseases and lacking infrastructure. I haven’t defined what that will look like yet, but I want to do something around that.”
No doubt, with drive and great flair—and perhaps upsetting people along the way—she will.
Writer Heidi Kyser shares details about Pat Mulroy on 97.1 FM The Point. Listen to the broadcast below.