Kay sera sera

Posted on | May 4, 2010 | 1 Comment

Kay Brothers retires this week as Deputy General Manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. There will probably be parties and there should be toasts, during which she may be heralded as a force in developing groundwater storage programs for the Las Vegas Valley Water District in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Even her worst critics would have to raise a glass. The kind of storage of Colorado River water undertaken by Brothers and Terry Katzer, the man who hired her in 1986 at the SNWA seed agency, was a model of progressive water management in a desert where evaporation empties reservoirs with sparkling remorselessness — and in a valley where subsidence is measured in feet, not inches.

However, it is unlikely that she will be remembered for that. Rather, second only to her boss Pat Mulroy, Brothers has been Justifier-in-Chief for the Las Vegas pipeline project unveiled in 1989.

Mulroy usually takes the heat for the pipeline, as she should. She’s the boss and it’s her project, but she is also a laywoman. Brothers was her voice of expertise. Brothers is the one with the degree in environmental engineering from the New Mexico Institute of Technology. As Brothers prepares to step down, it merits revisiting some of her most famous assurances to the press and public concerning the pipeline since the plan was made public 21 years ago:

1. The SNWA project is not comparable to Owens Valley because Owens Valley targeted surface water and the five-basin Las Vegas pipeline targets groundwater.

2. Consequences such as the dust storms out of Owens Valley are impossible because the Las Vegas project would have to meet the review standards of the National Environmental Policy Act.

3. Though some plants whose roots now anchor soil in target valleys would die, the agency would leave enough vegetation to prevent dust storms. Successor vegetation in valleys affected by pumping would also serve that purpose.

4. Unacceptable environmental impacts from pumping heavily throughout the Great Basin would be averted by stopping and starting pumps in various locations.

5. Las Vegas would stop pumping if damage was noticed by monitoring committees.

6. Models capable of predicting damage before pumping were not useful because they didn’t take into account all the water that she would capture through stream diversion that would otherwise be lost to evaporation once it reached baking playas.

7. She could get any project permitted.

For those who questioned any or all of these assertions, Brothers’ resemblance to Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes became more than physical. “Owens Valley was done pre-NEPA, pre Fish and Wildlife, pre-anything. To even compare them is to be out of date and not understand what a groundwater project is versus a surface water one!” she shouted during a 2007 interview.

The problem with this perfectly Hughesian riposte is that it was probably wrong, as were most of Brothers’ assertions. For example:

1. To say that the SNWA project is not comparable to Owens Valley because Owens Valley targeted surface water and the five-basin Las Vegas pipeline targets groundwater is misleading. After Los Angeles emptied Owens Lake, it started pumping groundwater.

2. To say damage from dust storms on par with those out of Owens Valley are impossible in the Great Basin because the Las Vegas project would have to meet the review standards of the National Environmental Policy Act is a non-sequitur. Dust storms are already a fact of life in the Great Basin, NEPA or no NEPA. NEPA can be manipulated by a skillful compliance specialist, which Brothers is; nature can’t. Basic logic informs us that groundwater pumping could only exacerbate the storms. Moreover, the agency responsible for air quality, the US Environmental Protection Agency, has been largely excluded from the public environmental impact review process for the pipeline. While a Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman did say that the US EPA would be invited in at some stage, there is no evidence of this having happened and a draft environmental impact study has yet to be made public. Meanwhile, the State Engineer of Nevada has refused to consider dust as an issue in the permitting process.

3. To say that her agency would leave enough plant cover to prevent dust storms ignores that under Nevada water law her claims on Great Basin groundwater were made precisely to capture  the “ET budget” of those plants. Legally speaking, her duty is to kill that plant cover. Only when it is killed off by pumping would Las Vegas not be mining groundwater to compensate for water being drawn by tens of thousands of square miles of struggling flora.

4. To say that damage would be averted by stopping and starting pumps in various locations is to sound like a graduate from the Madoff School of Hydrology.

5. To say that Las Vegas would stop pumping if damage was noticed by monitoring committees sounds good, until you consider that by moving pumps around and even irrigating particularly troublesome areas, monitoring could be rendered useless until there was region-wide collapse.

6. To say that models, including the SNWA’s, were not useful because they didn’t take into account all the recharge that she would capture through stream diversion asks us to believe that the SNWA’s own modeler missed a lot of available water and that this water had no function but evaporation. Given that the SNWA modeler reported to Brothers as he gathered information, this beggars credulity. It seems far more likely that Brothers and her staff applied pressure on their own modeler because they didn’t like the results showing steep falls in the groundwater tables of target basins, which contradicted public assurances made by Brothers.

7. To say that she could get any project permitted is probably true. During her tenure, the State Engineer did award large hauls of water from four of the five valleys targeted by the main pipeline trunk. It seems unlikely that the Bureau of Land Management will stop physical passage of the pipeline over nearly 300 miles of federal land when and if it finally gets its environmental impact study out for public review.

That said, while she “could” have done it, the fact is, Brothers didn’t. Instead, as she retires, the project is mired in court cases.

Only one of these court cases is relevant to Brothers. The due process case now moving from the state supreme court to district court is about people being denied their right to make timely protests, not hydrology. But the October 15, 2009 decision from the Seventh District Court that struck down awards sought by SNWA under Brothers for Las Vegas in Dry Lake, Cave and Delamar Valleys is about water. It found recharge estimates put to the State Engineer by SNWA worthy of Bernie Madoff.

Judge Norman C. Robison wrote, “In the past, the State Engineer required specific empirical data before taking the significant step of allowing existing water to be transferred out of basin. In Ruling No. 5875, however, the State Engineer was satisfied by normative, predictive data without detailing why that change was acceptable. While this may have resolved the water management problem presented by the applications, the sudden resolution of simply “printing more money” or mining for water by declaring that more afa (acre feet per year) was available when viewed throug a new prism, without explanation as to what changed to allow this new approach, presents the essence of an arbitrary decision.”

Few pipeline opponents will shed tears for SNWA general manager Pat Mulroy as her deputy retires. But maybe they should, for it’s not just Mulroy stuck between a shrinking Colorado River water supply and buckling pipeline plan, it’s all of Southern Nevada. Katzer and Brothers were in place when Mulroy took over in 1989. You have to go to Los Angeles to the chaotic and scandal-riven Department of Water and Power to find intrigue comparable to that of the SNWA groundwater division.

Katzer, the man who hired Brothers at the Las Vegas Valley Water District in 1986 flounced out of a consulting contract with SNWA shortly before a 2006 State Engineer hearing. This was to consider 1989 applications for water from the richest valley of all on the pipeline route. The reason for Katzer’s meltdown? He reportedly butted heads and egos with a man brought in by Brothers to head the groundwater resources department. As those around at the time tell it, Katzer, an USGS-trained geologist and Brothers’ former boss, didn’t take it well when he found himself answering to a former Las Vegas parks department engineer. Brothers’ chief modeler, also recruited by Katzer, and whose models showed disastrous drawdowns as the likely outcome of the pipeline, turned whistleblower in 2008. As Brothers herself now retires, Mulroy, the laywoman, is left to see through a project in which it looks like sound science was dodged instead of honestly debated.

Again Karen Hughes comes to mind. She left Bush to spend more time with her family as his administration became enveloped in scandal and the US was left teetering on the edges of domestic and foreign disaster. In the Nevadan microcosm of the pipeline story, Brothers’ departure is every bit as significant. She is jumping a sinking ship. Even before the pipeline has been built, the project is in chaos. Pipeline critics not only know this, they saw it coming. It is time to let Las Vegans who see town planning and stepped-up indoor conservation instead of predation of the Great Basin as the sane way forward into the argument. Above all, it is time to give the public real science to debate as it makes hard choices as to how to proceed. Brothers’ departure opens the door to that. So, with genuine regard for her groundwater storage projects and equally genuine disgust at her handling of the pipeline permitting process, here is a toast to the opportunity to appoint an honest successor. May Las Vegas seize it and prosper.

*This post has been updated.


One Response to “Kay sera sera”

  1. David Zetland
    May 4th, 2010 @ 10:07 pm

    An impressive biography (post-mortem?) of shame

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