The River Captain

In water policy, life on the Colorado can be rocky. But new water boss John Entsminger aims to keep Southern Nevada’s ride smooth.

Photo by Christopher A. Jones

Photo by Christopher A. Jones

John Entsminger has been the close-cropped, crisp, shirt-and-tie guy behind former water czar Pat Mulroy at the Southern Nevada Water Authority since 1999. While Mulroy was sometimes characterized as forceful, Entsminger speaks with a tone of calm certainty, of stability. Of reassurance.

Entsminger, 42, became general manager of the SNWA in February. He had come to the authority straight out of the University of Colorado Law School; as deputy council, he worked the front line of Colorado River policy, earning the high regard that would ultimately make him Mulroy’s handpicked successor. Over the years, he has shaped an approach to water politics that’s not about Wild West wars between the states. Instead, it’s about striving for “professionalism, collaboration and cooperation.”

“We are blessed—and I don’t think that’s overstating it—on the Colorado with tremendously strong partnerships and working relationships not only between the states but the municipalities,” he says. “It’s one of the points that differentiates the Colorado from some of the more antagonistic and judicially inclined river systems we’ve seen around the country.”

Of course that wasn’t always the case. As the source of water for seven dry states and northern Mexico, the Lower Basin of the river has been, and in many ways continues to be, the subject of much legal wrangling. Exhibit A is the battle over the proposed pipeline to suck water from central and eastern Nevada to Southern Nevada—which Entsminger says is a last resort in the SNWA’s portfolio.

But ask him about the history of politics on the river, and he ticks off a list of successes, starting with the 1995 Central Arizona Project (an aqueduct that diverts water from the Colorado River into southern Arizona), which he views as the moment when attitudes shifted from antagonism to cooperation, up to 2012’s Minute 319, which allowed water to flow into Mexico again this spring.

That spirit of cooperation, Entsminger says, is born of a mutual understanding that all Colorado River Compact states will suffer if the water dries up. “We [have] a set of professionals on the river who … have years of experience and who realize that you have this supply-and-demand issue.”

When Mulroy tapped him to be her successor, she noted, “We’re at a very critical time right now in our relationships with the other states. John understands this. He understands the players, the culture, the politics, the laws, and we have to have somebody who can step seamlessly into [my] shoes.”

As the region faces drought and climate change, and Las Vegans watch Lake Mead drop while the Water Authority races to finish the third intake pipe, Entsminger sees his job as threefold: encourage further reduction of outdoor water use; acquire more water (that’s where his relationship-building and negotiating skills will be tested); and secure and maintain current infrastructure and facilities.

In the conservation arena, Entsminger, like Mulroy before him, cites the Valley’s success in reducing water rates through turf tear-out incentives and water recycling.

“I think we have a higher [conservation] awareness than most metropolitan areas in the United States,” he says. “But certainly as long as water is coming out of the tap it’s not something people think about every day. You can always do more, but we’re pretty proud of the level of education and outreach that we’ve done.”

Entsminger’s true specialty is dealing with the big picture, navigating the complexities of interstate water management. While his leadership requires a degree of fighting for the home team, he says that Colorado River water management is not as simple as Las Vegas versus Phoenix or Los Angeles. The economies supported by the Colorado are intricately interwoven.

“If you like to eat salad, you’re responsible for a percentage of that Colorado water being deployed to the Imperial Valley or Coachella Valley [in California] where [lettuce] is growing,” he says. “Or if you like the idea of taking a rafting trip down the Grand Canyon someday, you’re influencing how Glen Canyon Dam is operated and what that recreation economy has to do with the use of the Colorado River.”

So negotiating for collaborative management of the entire river’s use, not just managing Southern Nevada’s use, is a key duty.

That doesn’t mean Entsminger is unconcerned about the challenge of Southern Nevada’s population growth, but that he thinks it’s manageable. How it’s managed will determine whether and how further acquisition of water may be necessary—through the in-state pipeline, or trade with future (hypothetical) desalinization plants in Mexico, or more negotiation with river partners, depending on the decisions of local political leaders.

“[So] it’s not whether you grow, it’s how you grow,” he says. “Growth does not necessarily increase your use of water. Our own experience in Las Vegas belies this common association of a one-to-one correlation between growth and an increase in use of water. Our own community in the last 12 years has reduced the consumptive use by 33 percent at the same time our population has increased by 25 percent.

“If you want to go back to ’70s-style, half-acre lots with wall-to-wall turf, there’s a finite amount our resources can support. If you want to do the Manhattanization of Las Vegas that was talked about in 2006, you can do that without a material increase in the amount of water that you consume out of Lake Mead. I’m not advocating for that kind of increased growth in Las Vegas, but it’s my job to say you need to make decisions in accordance with these facts [about water availability].”

But development decisions ultimately should be made by the community, he says.

“The role of the Water Authority is to provide the tools to let the community be what the community wants to be,” he says. “I don’t think it’s our job to tell the community what it wants to be. There are a number of private and governmental functions that drive what the community is going to look like, everything from zoning to business licensing to, on the private side, investment decisions and lending.

“The Water Authority needs to be a foundational element to support those community decisions. I don’t see us [ever] having a regulatory role, but I see us having a voice about the wise use of water.”

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