If ever I saw a fish out of water it was Patricia Mulroy struggling through a river trip down Grand Canyon. The Las Vegas water czar was clearly someone who disliked getting her nails dirty or sleeping on the ground. I often see passengers like her, but generally it’s family dynamics, not professional responsibility, that lands them down here against their will.
She was part of a team-building trip for water users led by then Assistant Secretary of the Interior Bennett Raley on how they should begin addressing potential water shortages. Living that Las Vegas life of abundance in artificial worlds as she does, I guess I should not have been too surprised that Pat got so prickly as things tended toward the natural. For Pat, nature is a public relations necessity or a means to an end. Otherwise, the natural world represents a hindrance to her pursuits of new water supplies for golf courses, condominiums and resorts—indeed the de facto job description of a number of water agency heads.
But my goodness, why must she engage in deception and misinformation on behalf of developer interests when options are there to do some real good for the City of Las Vegas, for the environment and to save her customers money?
Just look at this massive groundwater mine and pipeline she’s pushing. It’s a 300-mile tunnel snaking through fragile Great Basin landscapes to bring 41 billion gallons of water annually to expand the Las Vegas desert footprint. I first heard about Pat’s pipeline ten years ago from Leslie, an endangered Least Chub living where Pat plans to sink her straws. The least chubs we’re asking about Colorado flows and such. They believed Pat was spinning a cry wolf story about the Colorado running dry, and Pat saving the day by draining their habitat to create a water insurance policy.
Now me and the rest my Colorado River native fish compatriots are as nervous about declining flows as any of you, but I’m certain that tiny 2 percent of the Colorado River’s flow that takes care of Las Vegas will never near any chopping block should total flows decline such that the Department of Interior must step in to adjudicate. Even without the secrets Pat and other Las Vegas insiders may know about key DC politicians and upper level bureaucrats, I’ll stake my already endangered life on the fact that households, casinos and more than a few golf courses in the world’s gambling capital will always outweigh and, if need be, outpay the water users that currently consume more than 70 percent of the Colorado’s flow for a bit of cattle feed or other irrigated crops. This crisis Pat speaks of is complete fiction.
What’s not fiction, according to Leslie, are the strategies that will allow Las Vegas to easily serve more people with its existing Colorado River supply. A comprehensive study of Las Vegas water use by the Pacific Institute in 2007, and updated in 2011, notes: “Water conservation and efficiency improvements in the Las Vegas area can defer or eliminate the need for new water-supply facilities…. such as SNWA’s [Southern Nevada Water Authority's] proposed groundwater development and pipeline project in eastern Nevada.” The Institute credited SNWA for efforts that over the past twenty years have helped to bring per capita water use down to 220 gallons per day, but adds that usage is still well above Las Vegas’ arid neighbors such as Phoenix and Albuquerque.
The Institute found that if Las Vegas merely continued its downward trend in water use, it could reach 166 gallons per person per day in 2035, an amount well in line with current practice in most western, arid-climate cities. The study offers all manner of immediately available water-saving and efficiency measures for Pat to pursue that would assure future users’ needs. Pat however, feels compelled to inflate demand projections, such as not allowing per capita water use to drop below 200 gallons per person per day, in order to justify her $15-billon pipeline.
Also all too real to Leslie and others is that pumping this ice age era water out of the ground will have tremendous environmental impacts, especially to those unique desert ecosystems in and around Great Basin National Park. Like my home in Grand Canyon, much of the Great Basin’s habitat is found nowhere else on earth and deserves protection and careful management. Nonetheless, Pat wants to drop the underlying water table by 200 feet; drain 3,600 acres of wetlands, 70 springs and 145 miles of perennial streams; and turn 137,000 acres of prime Great Basin shrub land habitat into weed fields. As these ecosystems are transformed, some 30 million tons of dust and particulate matter will be sent aloft annually.
The toll on species would be staggering says the Center for Biological Diversity: Beyond the least chub, 13 other desert fishes and 25 species of rare Great Basin springsnails would most likely go extinct. The imperiled greater sage grouse, southwestern willow-flycatcher, Columbia spotted frog, northern leopard frog and Bonneville cutthroat trout—along with iconic species such as mule deer, pronghorn and elk—would also face widespread harm.
But the real harm Pat’s perpetuating is an immoral approach to serving her customers as well as the greater society and environment her misguided leadership impacts. Consider all the wasted years in creative time, resources and community energy she has forced people to consume fighting this project. And this battle is far from over. While the Secretary of the Interior recently approved running the pipeline across federal land, litigation over this action is getting underway, and more is sure to follow. The public may be getting increasingly nervous about the project’s rising price tag, but Pat’s not letting up.
Conversely, if these same energies were applied to a conservation path, things would be going much more smoothly. Whether ten years ago, or today, Pat could come out and say Las Vegas has no need to seek any new water supplies, as a number of local and state officials have called for. Generally not as many petitions, protests and lawsuits are filed when conservation strategies are pursued, so not only could the public get on with other matters, but a much stronger foundation for a culture of doing more with less would take hold in a city better known for promoting the opposite.
Pat may not be too keen on the environment, but like her desire to take the easy way out and see Grand Canyon from a helicopter as opposed to a raft, why can’t she take the easy way here and let conservation measures do the work for her and leave the Great Basin and our friends there alone.