“Isn’t it true …”

Posted on | November 10, 2011 | 3 Comments

It was a long day yesterday and watching a lawyer for Las Vegas question a water analyst from a California wasn’t supposed to be part of it, until it was. Seldom are courtroom proceedings in real life better than they are on, say, “The Good Wife.” But for the first half of Wednesday, November 9th, 2011, in the on-going Carson City hearings over whether or not to grant a Las Vegas pipeline water from four rural Nevada valleys, reality won.

Appearing for Las Vegas was Steven Sims, a New Mexico-based lawyer better known in California as counsel for the Westlands Water District, the Central Valley corporate farm interest dedicated to overturning the Endangered Species Act the better to siphon massive amounts of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta without regard to water needs of fish.

Appearing as an expert witness for opponents of the pipeline was Peter Gleick, president of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute and a water policy analyst famous for having received a “genius award” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The Pacific Institute studies water use throughout the West with a particular eye on finding ways to conserve water and energy.

At issue was a 2007 Pacific Institute study concluding that tens of thousands of acre feet of water could be saved if Las Vegas did more on conservation. 

Some background: Las Vegas emphasizes its record on outdoor conservation because ten years ago, expecting surplus water from Lake Mead, it overbuilt to the degree it was the fastest growing metropolis in the US (and now has the highest number of homes either in or entering repossession). However, as it built on the bet that surplus water could sustain the development, in 2002, drought struck the Colorado River. The surpluses it had banked on were gone. In lieu of them, Vegas had to extend its basic Lake Mead allocation by frantically ripping out water-hungry turf grass while pushing for new groundwater from rural valleys. Throughout, it has stalwartly refused  to seriously address indoor conservation, particularly as it affects powerful hotels with spa-like bathrooms. Apart from the difficulty of retrofitting hotels owned by the magnates who run the city, at the Vegas water agency, the rationale is that it can treat hotel and residential sewage, return it to Lake Mead, and reclaim it as unused water. Vegas would have us believe that the ability to reclaim water obviates any need to parse it out respectfully in the first place. 

This post does not include samples from Mr Gleick’s direct testimony, whose central points may be found by reading the contested Pacific Institute report “Hidden Oasis: Water Conservation and Efficiency in Las Vegas.” I only leapt for my note pad when, in an early exchange during cross-examination by Las Vegas’s lawyer, Mr Sims read into the record the mission statement, “The Pacific Institute is a nonpartisan research institute that works to advance environmental protection, economic development, and social equity,” and then tried to have Mr Gleick read into the transcript only the excerpt about environmental protection.

The sample exchanges below come with the added proviso that this is not a continuous transcript but independent exchanges noted as Mr Sims tried to chisel away at the notion that Las Vegas’s Southern Nevada Water Authority could reasonably be expected to conserve another drop of water from its Colorado River allocation stored in Lake Mead before the court grants it the right to plunder rural groundwater from the Great Basin Aquifer.

* * *

Sims: “So you’d have no reason to disagree that SNWA’s average spending [on conservation per year] was $15 million?”

Gleick: “I have no reason to dispute that number.”

* * *

Sims: “Isn’t it true that the combined total of all the other agencies listed on this [rival conservation program] table is somewhere in the area of  $1.5 million?

Gleick: “I haven’t added it up but have no reason to dispute that number.”

* * *

Sims: “Isn’t it true that SNWA spends 10 times more than the next 10 programs combined?”

Gleick: “Yes.”

* * *

Sims: “You want SNWA to remove every blade of grass in the Las Vegas area, don’t you?”

Gleick: “Do you get that from something I’ve written or said? Have I ever written or said that?”

 * * *

Sims: “This table lists 15 different types of outdoor conservation programs.”

(after some chatter) Gleick: “There are 15 measures, that’s not the same as programs.”

Sims: “SNWA offers seven of them, the MWD [Metropolitan Water District of Southern California] also has seven of these, don’t they?”

Gleick: “That’s not a precise statement. May I explain?”

Sims: “Your attorney will allow you to explain on redirect. I’m asking my questions now.”

Gleick: “Would you like me to explain?”

Sims: “No.”

* * *

 Sims: “Isn’t it true that most large utilities use computer models to set their rates?”

Gleick: “Maybe.”

Sims: “You don’t know that for a fact?”

 * * *

Gleick, after a coughing fit:  “You’ve choked me up.” Drinks water from re-usable metal bottle.

Hearings officer: “He’s a funny guy.”

Sims: “I’ve never killed a witness before. I don’t want you to be the first one.” Swigs water from a plastic water bottle.

* * *

Sims: “Are you aware that SNWA has been the recipient of the Water Hero award for quite some time? … Are you aware that SNWA gives an annual landscape award? … Are you aware that the landscape award was givien for 14 years in a row? … So would you agree that SNWA already gives public awards for landscape conservation awards?”

 * * *

Responding to a mention by Gleick of the energy intensive-nature of largely un-controlled indoor water use in Las Vegas because the water can be continuously treated and recycled:

Sims: “The purpose of this hearing is to talk about water conservation and not energy conservation.”

* * *

Sims: “Earlier… You said, ‘There’s nothing special about Las Vegas.'”

Gleick: “I’m not sure I put it that way.”

Sims: “I just thought you thought it should be more like your home state, California.”

* * *

Yes, Mr Sims. Mr Gleick does come from California, a state where last I checked the mission to “advance environmental protection, economic development, and social equity” does not translate into “Disregard what this guy says because he’s an environmentalist.”

*This post was lightly edited shortly after original posting.


3 Responses to ““Isn’t it true …””

  1. George J.
    November 10th, 2011 @ 11:31 am

    Speaking of indoor conservation, I’m sure that most people staying in Vegas casino hotels have no second thoughts about taking long, hot showers (or even intentionally taking longer showers since it’s not their water bill). That mindset will probably never change, but imagine how much water and energy would be saved if Vegas hotels were required to replace their shower nozzles with low-flow ones.

    It’s incredible the casinos didn’t voluntarily make the switch ten years ago, and more so that even today they still have standard guzzler nozzles. Why does the city permit this to continue?

    They should also outlaw those stupid shower valves that open at full blast by default with temperature being the only control.

  2. EmilyGreen
    November 10th, 2011 @ 2:04 pm

    You could swim laps in the bath tubs at Green Valley Ranch. Gleick went there in the name of science and they hit him with a load of HUAC-style garbage. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Jerry Cadagan
    November 10th, 2011 @ 2:28 pm

    Peter Gleick quite rightfully does not like being characterized as, or lumped in with, “environmentalists”, particularly “radical environmentalists” — being the only kind that folks like Devin Nunes and Tom McClintock know.

    Nonetheless, as an admitted environmentalist (and sometimes a bit radical at that) I take pride in the fact that I find myself in regular agreement with Dr. Gleick on fundamental issues such as conservation being cheaper than new dams; subsidized water generally being a bad idea; the nexus between water movement and energy being something that needs more attention; etc.

    The fact that an environmentalist agrees with Gleick doesn’t mean he’s an environmentalist. He’s a thinker who is looking for ways to improve our economy, our quality of life (e.g. clean drinking water) and even our environment. I’m not sure a Westlands lawyer could grasp all that.

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