Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Posted on | April 6, 2012 | 6 Comments

A new report from the NRDC is reminiscent of a Soviet-style Southern Nevada children's book praising Las Vegas water manager Pat Mulroy.

Publication this week of “Ready or Not: An Evaluation of State Climate and Water Preparedness Planning” by the Natural Resources Defense Council offers a good example of what happens when lobbyists are charged with assessing the very policy that they had a hand in developing. Las Vegas water manager Pat Mulroy becomes a climate hero and California becomes a nationwide leader in climate-ready water policy, a ranking prominently reported today in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Lest anyone mistake skepticism about the NRDC report as an endorsement of climate change denial, let it be said up front: Climate change is fact. What prompts this post isn’t any difference of opinion with the NRDC about the utter urgency of climate change preparedness, or even any over-arching disagreements about the need for high-level water planning to actually trickle down into active policy. It’s incredulity at the rankings. If a state that turned Owens Lake into a salt bed, that led the West in destroying the Colorado River estuary and is well on its way to finishing off the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta gets a top ranking for water management in the face of climate change, it must be asked: What merits a fail? 

The NRDC’s enthusiasm for California water security policy amounts in many ways to a pat on its own back. It lobbied hard for the legislation that the new report congratulates for, among other things, mandating reduction of urban water use by 20% by 2020. What the report doesn’t mention is that lobbying by urban water authorities ensured that the reduction could be set against such a high use point that it’s not really 20% from the date of the bill.

Moreover, since the goal was set, conservation programs in cities such as Los Angeles have lost both publicity and cash while the bonds supporting the most progressive elements of the bills are stalled, possibly doomed. Anyone who attended the January public meeting in Pasadena laying out the goals of the Delta Stewardship Council’s draft environmental impact report would have witnessed a succession of  Southern California water agency reps reading speeches into the record as to why they should not have to adhere to the Delta Plan’s most progressive prescriptions. It’s an autonomy thing.

Meanwhile, when it comes to our neighbor Nevada, while the new NRDC report is damning of state policy, it has this to say about  Las Vegas’s Southern Nevada Water Authority:

In contrast with the lack of climate change planning at the state level, the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) has conducted substantial planning for water supply challenges due to population growth and drought conditions related to climate change. The agency is a member of the Water Utility Climate Alliance (WUCA), a group of large water utilities focused on addressing climate change implications for water resources management. Formed by seven water and wastewater utilities in southern Nevada in 1991 to cooperatively manage water resources in the Las Vegas Valley, SNWA since its inception has placed a high priority on water conservation and has adopted aggressive conservation policies, such as prohibiting turf installation in new residential front yards, limiting days and times for landscape watering, and mandating water budgets for golf courses. These measures in conjunction with incentive programs like the Water Smart Landscapes Rebate Program, which pays property owners to replace grass lawns with water-efficient landscaping, have helped to reduce consumptive use by 21 billion gallons a year from 2002 to 2008 in spite of a population increase of 400,000. In preparation for declining water levels in Lake Mead, SNWA has begun construction of a third intake shaft. The nearly $800 million project, scheduled for completion in 2014, will establish an intake at an elevation of 860 feet, ensuring that SNWA maintains the capability to withdraw from Lake Mead as its level drops. To diversify water supplies, SNWA has also banked water locally through aquifer recharge and in agreements with California and Arizona and is pursuing in-state groundwater rights acquisitions.

The SNWA’s own PR department couldn’t have been more generous. What the NRDC fails to explain is that conservation in Southern Nevada started as an accident. In 1989 the SNWA’s founding general manager Pat Mulroy was hand-picked by a gaming industry lobbyist expressly to flush what soon proved to be runaway development on steadily released public land located in the driest parts of the driest state in the nation. The plan developed between Mrs Mulroy, the Nevada congressional delegation and the gaming and construction industries was dependent on pregnant expectations of getting more water out of the Colorado River, not necessarily using less. Radical outdoor conservation only became policy after 2002, when sudden and dramatic drought on the Colorado dashed all hopes of river surpluses.
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The NRDC seems equally unaware that the SNWA was formed only after Mrs Mulroy dangled the carrot of a massive haul of rural groundwater before a spangling of small, regional Clark County water companies. It is an abiding mystery why the NRDC never objected to her proposal for one of the most elaborate and potentially damaging interbasin transfers in the West, whose proposed pipe extended 300 miles north and targeted valleys either side of the Great Basin National Park. When I asked NRDC water analyst Barry Nelson about it in 2007, he said, “We don’t study it.” The NRDC was busy with the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta, he said. Heavily tapped by Southern California after collapse of flows on the Colorado River, this northern Californian estuary was already widely considered to be a national disaster in waiting.
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However, while not studying her policies at all closely, the NRDC did at the time know Pat Mulroy. It had co-hosted a climate change meeting with the SNWA and even published Mrs Mulroy. Then as now it seems likely that the NRDC’s see-no-evil attitude toward the SNWA has less to do with Mrs Mulroy’s marvelous foresight and progressive policies and more with staying in the good graces of a certain other resident of Clark County: US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
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In the new report, the NRDC calls for support of the Water Infrastructure Resiliency and Sustainability Act of 2011, a plan to create a federal pool of money from which cities can borrow to upgrade their respective water works. Mrs Mulroy and Sen Reid both support it. Helping water agencies borrow federal money to gird for climate change is vitally important, and this is in no way a call to oppose it. However, it is a caution against being suckered by self-serving revisionism on the part of the beneficiaries and a strong urging to read it with extreme care. Those of us who believe in sound town planning, particularly for climate change, may not concur that the solution is runaway development of a gambling town in the hottest heart of the Mojave.
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On another front, as the NRDC grabbed headlines with its gimmicky rankings, the US Environmental Protection Agency recently published a draft strategy plan for how to address water policy in the face of climate change. To read it, click here or on the cover above.

 

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6 Responses to “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”

  1. MIchael Campana
    April 6th, 2012 @ 8:06 pm

    Fabulous post, Emily!

    I guess someone forgot to tell NRDC that California still does not regulate or oversee groundwater pumping on a statewide basis.

    I should send NRDC links to the NRC Bay-Delta reports.

    Thanks for doing this.

  2. Steve Fleischli
    April 10th, 2012 @ 2:15 pm

    Emily,

    We’re glad you saw our Ready or Not report, and you’re right: California has a long list of unsustainable water policies, including impacts to Owens Lake, the Bay-Delta and the Colorado River Delta. In fact, we’d add several more items to your list, including chronic groundwater overdraft, the contamination of groundwater drinking water supplies, the degradation of coastal waters from urban runoff, and the impacts of water projects on the state’s salmon fishery. These problems have been brewing for decades – long before the climate and water connection was widely understood – and we’ve never been shy about noting these shortfalls to state officials. Unfortunately, we now know that climate change will increase the challenges our natural resources and our water systems face. Significant adaptation challenges face California – and every state in the nation. That’s why we wrote this report.

    The goal of the Ready or Not analysis is to focus attention on planning efforts to address the water-related threats of climate change by taking a close look at what each state is doing to address its vulnerabilities. From a national perspective, California is making significant progress on climate change planning. But could the state be doing more to protect water resources? Certainly. For example, the state’s new policy to reduce reliance on Delta water supplies will not implement itself. Efforts like the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan process must include this requirement in their plans. Likewise, the efforts of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission to plan for the impacts of sea level rise around the Bay must be translated into a regional strategy that takes tangible steps to reduce the vulnerability of Bay Area residents and the Bay Area economy to rising seas.

    State-level efforts to understand and plan for vulnerabilities to climate change-related impacts to our water systems is just the first step. It is, however, an essential step. States that do not adequately acknowledge these looming impacts – and there were many such states identified in our report (including Nevada) – are unlikely to meet the challenges these impacts present. Our climate and water team is examining adaptation planning efforts across the country, as well as numerous proposed projects – including the pipeline you mention being pursued by the Southern Nevada Water Authority. You’ll be reading more from us about these projects in the near future.

    Our national Ready or Not report does not represent an endorsement of the past water policies of California, or any other state, as sustainable. Quite the opposite. By encouraging adaptation planning, NRDC is encouraging states to evaluate current policies in light of the likely effects of climate change – and then to take action that will inevitably mean new and innovative thinking. We welcome your efforts to encourage the State of California and water agencies across the country to translate adaptation planning into tangible action and appreciate your thoughts in that respect.

    Sincerely,

    Steve Fleischli and Ben Chou (NRDC)

  3. cbksk
    April 11th, 2012 @ 8:50 am

    The key to understanding NRDC is the saying “He whose bread I eat, is the song I sing”.

    Of course, they will write a laudatory report about the state level policies that they promoted.

    Many large environmental NGOs fall prey to magical thinking about state level policy actually translating into a desirable result.

    The view from on the ground is the only result will be increasing regulatory complexity for their crony consulting firms to exploit and exacerbating the energy-complexity spiral we are currently experiencing.

    Thanks, NRDC.

  4. Launce Rake
    April 11th, 2012 @ 12:10 pm

    It’s extraordinary that the NRDC would once again laud the “sustainability” of the Southern Nevada Water Authority policies. This is the same agency that last year told consumers to go ahead and replace desert landscaping with water-hungry turf? That has limited funding for water conservation programs – despite the desire for residents to conserve more water? And that is explicitly attacking water conservation as “too expensive” to justify a $15 billion groundwater export plan that will do huge damage to Great Basin National Park and a Vermont-sized area of the Intermountain West? Unbelievable.

  5. Launce Rake
    April 11th, 2012 @ 12:14 pm

    BTW, a broken water main near downtown Las Vegas has sent a river running down my street for the last hour, with nary a sign of Mrs. Mulroy’s staff. Perhaps they are busy back at their swanky new marble offices, hanging out with their $500/hour lobbyists and toasting their sustainability.

  6. MIchael Campana
    April 12th, 2012 @ 7:41 am

    Steve and Ben of NRDC miss a major point about California’s (in)ability to deal with the groundwater-climate change nexus: as surface water supplies diminish because of CC, more pumping of groundwater may occur to supplement the diminished surface water. This has already occurred to some degree in the San Joaquin Valley. It’s true that some local GW districts can regulate GW pumping, but unfortunately groundwater flow does not follow political boundaries. California’s lack of statewide groundwater pumping regulation or even monitoring makes it ill-prepared to deal with this situation.

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