Stakes High for Las Vegas Water Czar

Patricia Mulroy

hide captionPatricia Mulroy oversees the Las Vegas Valley Water District and the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which serve millions of residents and visitors to the Las Vegas area.

Southern Nevada Water Authority

A Series Overview

In a weeklong series, Morning Edition explores some of the conflicts that arise as different groups of people seek to maintain their hold on — or to get a hold of — more water in the arid West and other regions of the country.

Bellagio Hotel and Casino fountains i i

hide captionWater is part of the allure of the Las Vegas Strip, including the fountains of the Bellagio Hotel and Casino.

Ted Robbins, NPR
Bellagio Hotel and Casino fountains

Water is part of the allure of the Las Vegas Strip, including the fountains of the Bellagio Hotel and Casino.

Ted Robbins, NPR
Residential lawns i i

hide captionIn the early 1990s, new residential developments were sprouting up around Las Vegas with acres of manicured and irrigated lawns.

Ted Robbins, NPR
Residential lawns

In the early 1990s, new residential developments were sprouting up around Las Vegas with acres of manicured and irrigated lawns.

Ted Robbins, NPR
The Lakes, one of Las Vegas' water-intensive developments i i

hide captionThe Lakes, one of Las Vegas' water-intensive developments, features homes around three miles of artificial shoreline.

Ted Robbins, NPR
The Lakes, one of Las Vegas' water-intensive developments

The Lakes, one of Las Vegas' water-intensive developments, features homes around three miles of artificial shoreline.

Ted Robbins, NPR
Desert landscaping i i

hide captionDesert landscaping is common in southern Nevada. To encourage water-saving, the Southern Nevada Water Authority pays $2 a square foot for property owners to rip out grass.

Ted Robbins, NPR
Desert landscaping

Desert landscaping is common in southern Nevada. To encourage water-saving, the Southern Nevada Water Authority pays $2 a square foot for property owners to rip out grass.

Ted Robbins, NPR
Perry Kaye videotapes sprinklers in a residential neighborhood. i i

hide captionPerry Kaye of the Las Vegas Water District videotapes sprinklers in a residential neighborhood. Sprinklers are the biggest water wasters in Las Vegas It's illegal to water lawns between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m.

Ted Robbins, NPR
Perry Kaye videotapes sprinklers in a residential neighborhood.

Perry Kaye of the Las Vegas Water District videotapes sprinklers in a residential neighborhood. Sprinklers are the biggest water wasters in Las Vegas It's illegal to water lawns between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m.

Ted Robbins, NPR

Patricia Mulroy's spacious office is on the top floor of the Southern Nevada Water Authority complex, west of the Las Vegas Strip. It's filled with mementos from its occupant's tenure as head of the agency since 1989. There's an old poster from the 1800s, featuring a cowgirl who says, "Water, don't waste it," a sculpted stone bust of an Indian woman named "Prays for Rain," and even some road maps of Baja California.

Mulroy is a tan, trim, energetic woman in her mid-50s. She calls herself a pragmatist — results-oriented rather than theory-oriented. Both friends and foes seem to share the opinion that Mulroy is determined, effective, tough and driven. She has managed to drive down water use in this desert city while developing innovative strategies to find more water sources.

A City in Desert Denial

Mulroy came to Las Vegas as a college student in the 1970s. Money problems forced her to quit school, and she spent the next 15 years as a local government bureaucrat. In 1989, she was named general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District.

Mulroy says she found a city in desert denial.

"The valley was predominantly quarter-acre lots or larger, completely surrounded by grass," she says. "And we had consumption around 340 to 350 per capita." That's 350 gallons per person, per day — almost twice the water consumption in New York City. And New York receives 10 times the moisture of Las Vegas.

In fact, Las Vegas averages just four inches of rain a year. It gets nearly all of its water from the Colorado River from nearby Lake Mead.

Las Vegas' water allotment was decided back in 1928, when water from the Colorado River basin was divvied up among water-starved Southwestern states. At that time, Nevada had virtually no population, and even less political clout. It received a miniscule amount — just 4 percent — compared with agricultural powerhouses Arizona and California.

Still, that water allotment was adequate for about 60 years. In fact, during that time, the town came to consume water like it was drunk on it.

A 'Crashing End' to Consumption

In the early 1990s, new attractions appeared on the Vegas Strip. The Mirage Resort had a volcano spewing water and fire. New residential developments sprouted up around the city, with acres of manicured and irrigated lawns. One was called "The Lakes," and featured homes around three miles of artificial shoreline. Dozens of golf courses soaked up millions of gallons of water each day.

Into that scene of conspicuous consumption came the new water chief, Pat Mulroy. She immediately issued a moratorium on new water hook-ups.

According to Alan Feldman, then vice president of the Mirage Resort, Mulroy announced that profligate water use would "come to a crashing end."

Feldman says Mulroy told casino owners and developers that unless they learned how to use less water, the city would run out by 2006. Without water, she explained, there would be no business. Feldman said Mulroy's presentation was effective.

"She framed it as a business issue: 'This is a resource, this is how much we have, this is its correlation to the economy. How do we manage it to its best impact?'" Feldman says.

Forging a Consensus

Mulroy formed an umbrella agency, bringing together local water providers under the Southern Nevada Water Authority. She got neighboring states to stop fighting in court over the Colorado River. And she actually persuaded the states to work together on resolving Western water disputes.

Rita Maguire was head of Arizona's Department of Water Resources at the time — one of Mulroy's competitors. She says Mulroy had a way of convincing them all that they would have to sink or swim together.

"Her constant poking at people, moving them out of their comfort zone, caused us all to think more creatively and to push the envelope fairly quickly," Maguire says.

One of Mulroy's more creative concepts involved increasing Las Vegas' water supply without diminishing anyone else's. She came up with a system called "return-flow credits," which allowed wastewater from the city to be treated, then returned to Lake Mead and used again.

Return-flow credits increased southern Nevada's water supply by one-third.

Conservation Innovations

Mulroy also was able to convince members of the casino industry that they could be innovators and leaders in water conservation. Casino owner Steve Wynn built a water recycling plant in the early 1990s, underneath the Mirage Volcano and the Treasure Island Pirate Lagoon.

The MGM Mirage company installed low-flow bathroom fixtures inside its 11 Las Vegas hotels and drip irrigation outside. Now, that corporation is building a new 3,000-room resort, office and retail complex called City Center and piloting a number of innovative "green" features, including state-of-the-art low-level flush toilets.

Water is still part of the allure of the Las Vegas Strip. In addition to the Mirage Volcano and the Treasure Island lagoon, there are the Venetian Hotel's canals and the Bellagio Hotel and Casino's fountains, with jets that shoot water skyward, choreographed like showgirls to music.

But Mulroy says looks can be deceiving.

"The entire Las Vegas Strip uses 3 percent of our water resources," she says. "And they are the economic driver in the state of Nevada, bar none."

In fact, the biggest water wasters in Las Vegas continue to be outdoor sprinklers that water lawns and golf courses beyond the Strip. These water uses account for some 70 percent of southern Nevada's water use.

Mulroy has initiated a number of conservation campaigns aimed at that overuse as well. Today, it's illegal to water lawns between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. To encourage waterless landscaping, the water authority pays $2 per square foot for property owners to rip out grass. And artificial lakes have been banned.

Finding New Water Sources

But still, with the population of Las Vegas doubling over the past 15 years, and with annual visitors now topping 40 million, the city needs to find more water. And it has the financial resources to pay for new water sources.

As former Arizona water official Maguire points out, Las Vegas is a town with an open checkbook.

"They have more money than water," she says. "I think that's probably a fair statement, and they're using that money to bring more water."

Mulroy has been working on a plan for the past 15 years to pipe billions of gallons of water 300 miles from rural valleys in central Nevada.

There's also, as Mulroy puts it, "using the river as an exchange tool." And she has proposed building an $80 million reservoir to hold water for farmers in California. If the farmers get more water, the theory goes, then they'll need less from the Colorado River, and Las Vegas can have a bigger share.

Mulroy is even developing plans to build desalination plants on the Pacific coast of Mexico. Las Vegas would then take some of Mexico's Colorado River water. In other words, the city is willing to pay to supply other places water so it can have more of its own.

Mulroy explains, "I mean, if we had coastal property, we would be building our own desalter. But we don't have coastal property. So the only way we can do it is by building facilities in other areas, and by using the river as an exchange tool."

Critics of the Water Czar

Critics of Mulroy's "more water" strategy say that Las Vegas has to recognize the limits of growth at some point.

Jeff Van Ee, a longtime Las Vegas resident and member of the Sierra Club, fears that if Mulroy is successful at securing new water sources, more and more people will crowd into the desert city.

"And will the argument, and will the situation, be any different, when we have 4 million people and we have global warming and a long-term drought? What will we do then?" he asks.

Mulroy counters that any new growth can be smart growth, planned in a way to minimize water waste.

"I love high-rises," she says. "High-rises to me say small footprint on the ground. Very little landscaping around it. A lot more inside use. That is much more sustainable for southern Nevada."

Evolving Environmentally

Mulroy has become a converted environmentalist. Maybe it's the current drought, or climate change, or her two grown children who have just left for college. But Mulroy says her thinking is evolving.

"I would not have described myself as very environmentally responsible back in the early '90s," she says. "Over the years, I have grown not only to understand and appreciate it, but have become very vocal about the need to think about the whole, including the environment that we leave behind for our children."

Mulroy's latest project is a throwback to the pioneer days — a 180-acre restoration of the small stream that gave the city its name, the Las Vegas Springs.

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