High good, low bad: Mead in October 2012

Posted on | November 1, 2012 | 1 Comment

Pat Mulroy wore a pale yellow and cream-colored ensemble as she warned of disaster on the Colorado River. According to the October address at the WaterSmart Innovations convention by the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, there “will be headlines all over the country because the news is not good. The news on how many times this basin will go into shortages will be devastating.”

Inspiring the shock and awe will be the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, which, according to compilers at the federal Bureau of Reclamation, is due for publication late this month. 

There was no more fitting sartorial choice for doomsaying by the woman who time and again has described Las Vegas as the “canary in the coal mine” of Western water shortages. Anyone interested in the art of wringing water from the desert should watch her speech in this video link from Circle of Blue WaterNews if for no other reason than Mrs Mulroy and Las Vegas are the kind of canary that runs the mine.

I have to confess something of an addiction to Mulroratory, in no small part because I so admire her program for outdoor water conservation. If cities such as San Diego, Los Angeles and Sacramento showed a fraction of the discipline and flair that she displayed in stretching Southern Nevada’s Colorado River allocation by landscape reform, we in California would be much closer to peace on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta. Yet my admiration for Mrs Mulroy doesn’t so much diminish as curdle when her outdoor conservation record is used to excuse groundwater mining projects and runaway development of Las Vegas. The WaterSmart speech was studded with such coagulating moments. In the examples below, my responses to her remarks are in italics.

“… for the last 12 years, as we [in Las Vegas] have buffeted against the consequences of something we didn’t cause, something we can’t change, something we’re going to have to adapt to …” Explosive growth in Las Vegas was not caused by external forces. Witness the later remark, “In the short time that I have been in this job, we have doubled the population — twice.”

“… in partnership between those of us in charge of building the facilities and managing the resources and a community that understood those challenges, we did it without a hiccup …” If suppressing modeling showing that Las Vegas’s proposed groundwater mining in Lincoln and White Pine counties would have devastating environmental consequences across rural Nevada and Utah is “without a hiccup,” then this is true. If having the Supreme Court of Nevada find that your awards were made in violation of the rights of the citizens in the target counties is “without a hiccup,” then this is true. If creating a model where only population growth could sustain the city, then this is true. If being a key driver into sprawl that turned Las Vegas into the repossession capital of America was not a hiccup, then this is true.

“Many people in this state are not happy with our in-state project [300-mile-long pipeline to the foot of the of the Great Basin National Park]. You will have a different appreciation for the significance of this in-state project when you see that basin study come out and you see the number of times this system will go into shortage over the next 50 to 60 years. It is our safety net, and, in the absence of an alternative that meets and protects this community, there is no alternative.” The alternative is that Las Vegas should look at indoor water conservation and slow its growth.

“We have forged enough of a partnership with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, we have managed habitat, we are protecting the species, and we have proven that groundwater can safely be developed and not jeopardize and kill off old, prehistoric species — it can be done.” The only thing you have done is use political influence to force the USFWS into a monitoring arrangement where your own staff can dominate decision making. See no evil, report no evil, stop no pumps. Your plan to move pumping around to disguise impacts will also undermine what honest monitors survive SNWA interference. To paraphrase your own hydrologist-turned-whistleblower Tim Durbin, it is simple physics: If you take water from one place and deliver it to another, the place you take it from will miss it. Most bluntly, while promising rural folks next to no impacts, you have only claimed rights to the groundwater under a 19th century law that views water for wildlife and native plants as non-beneficial. That law requires you to kill off the “non-beneficial” users to make sure your pumping does not impact other licensed users. Every softly, softly undertaking you made about low to no impacts over the now nearly 23-year-drive to seize the rural water has been a bald-faced lie.

“… we don’t have a single federal nickel in our system.” Federal underwriting of your empire starts with the cost of impounding 90% of the water in your pipes, which comes from Lake Mead courtesy of the federal Bureau of Reclamation. Then, let us not forget that much of modern Las Vegas was developed on federal land spun into private ownership by a series of land bills and that those bills have put at least  $287,941,204  in Southern Nevada Water Authority coffers. So, no, you haven’t taken a single federal nickel. You’ve taken trillions of them.

Rather than accept the often self-serving pleas made by water managers in cities such as Las Vegas, San Diego, Phoenix and Los Angeles for ever more water projects, Americans need to ask themselves if it’s not better public policy to situate cities in places with adequate native water supplies.

Look at more of Mulroy speeches and congressional testimony and correcting her could lead to a very long list. A 23-year-old record shows that Mrs Mulroy will say whatever she thinks is needed to flush Vegas pipes. That’s her job. As whopper-prone as she is, it’s unlikely that she’s any more ruthless than any of her less theatrical opposite numbers in Arizona, California, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado or Wyoming, though arguably she has every right to be. Southern Nevada has the smallest of Colorado River allocations. Among urban centers, Phoenix, San Diego and Los Angeles are the gluttons of the Lower Basin. The big time gulpers are the desert farmers of Southern California; no one apart from the officers of the Imperial Irrigation District and its regional brethren would argue when Mulroy calls for reform of their water use. When she asks how Upper Basin states might “grow into their entitlement,” it’s safe to assume that she hopes they won’t and that their water will continue to slip south. However a June 2012 Natural Resources Defense Council report found of the five major new projects then being pushed for development on the Colorado River all were in the Upper Basin states of Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico.

Where are we? As of the witching hour on Halloween, 2012, the elevation of Lake Mead sat at 1116.48ft, or roughly half full. According to the federal Bureau of Reclamation, Mead’s upstream sister reservoir, Lake Powell, was slightly more full and the entire “system content” for the Colorado River was calculated to be 56%.

How scary is this? There may or may not be headlines when Reclamation publishes its study at the end of this month, but the contents of the report will be no surprise. The overallocation of the Colorado has been in and out of the headlines since the construction of Hoover Dam. In the 1950s, it gave a Supreme Court special master a heart attack. Oddly, the harder we flirt with disaster, the more sanguine we seem to be about the possibility of consumption by it. But let’s say that Mrs Mulroy is right, that there will be headlines and our recklessness gets the 72-point bold screaming HuffPo treatment that it deserves. If this happens, this is a suggestion for the generalist reporters assigned the story: Beware solutions peddled by urban water managers such as Mrs Mulroy. While their cures may include dewatering five magnificent valleys of the Great Basin for Las Vegas, or drying out the last living Cienega of the Colorado River estuary, or hitting up a nice fishing river on the West Slope of the Rockies for Denver, what Mrs Mulroy calls a “band of possibilities” is unlikely to include capping growth in cities set in the least tenable locations in the Lower 48. That would involve admitting their own masterworks were dangerous, even disasters in waiting.

 11/1/2012: This article was lightly edited shortly after posting.


One Response to “High good, low bad: Mead in October 2012”

  1. Susan Lynn
    November 2nd, 2012 @ 8:57 am

    Emily, brilliant piece and spot on! You have pointed out Ms. Mulroy’s brilliance but also her follies. Las Vegas is overrun with repossessed homes that all have “water” attached to them. It is insane to go back to the days of rampant growth, congested roads, building a school a month and failing to institute any indoor water conservation. Yes, the Cash for Grass was a great program, but it now has a loophole where one can pay back and install grass again. And in the name of budget cuts, enforcement of outdoor water waste is almost non-existent. Finally, the “Lakes at Las Vegas” has turned on its gushing waterfall of potable water again. The Lakes is just one example of creating an illusion in the desert–plenty of water. “The Lakes” uses good potable water while Las Vegas Wash (treated effluent) is piped UNDER the Lake to finally enter the other lake, Lake Mead. Pure insanity!

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