Stakes High for Las Vegas Water Czar Southern Nevada "water czar" Patricia Mulroy has used finely tuned negotiation skills, political savvy and her own special brand of municipal tough love to keep Las Vegas from running out of water.
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Stakes High for Las Vegas Water Czar

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Stakes High for Las Vegas Water Czar

Stakes High for Las Vegas Water Czar

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We continue our series on drought and water today with an unelected official in Las Vegas. Her name is Patricia Mulroy, and here's what local friends and foes say about her.

Unidentified Man #1: Determined.

Unidentified Man #2: Politically effective.

Unidentified Woman #1: She's tough.

Unidentified Woman #2: Incredibly intimidating.

Unidentified Man #3: She is driven.

MONTAGNE: And here's how she describes herself.

Ms. PATRICIA MULROY (General Manager, Southern Nevada Water Authority): The worst combination of Irish temper and German stubbornness. I'm very passionate.

MONTAGNE: Patricia Mulroy is known as the Water Czar, the Water Empress, even the Water Witch of Las Vegas. She likes none of those labels, by the way. Most people call her Pat, and she's the head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Yesterday we heard about ranchers north of the city who say Vegas wants too much water. Today NPR's Ted Robbins reports how Pat Mulroy has been able to bring lots of water to her city in a desert.

TED ROBBINS: Like anyone who sees a mirage, Patricia Mulroy sees water where there is none. The difference is, she makes the water appear. But back in 1989, when she was appointed general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District, she saw a city in desert denial.

Ms. MULROY: Well, the valley was predominantly quarter-acre lots or larger, completely surrounded by grass. And we had consumptions around 340-350 per capita.

ROBBINS: That was 350 gallons per person per day - almost twice the water consumption of New York City. And New York gets 10 times the moisture. Las Vegas was using water like it was drunk on it.

In 1990, the newly aptly named Mirage Resort on the Vegas Strip spewed water and fire from a volcano. A new residential development called The Lakes featured homes around three miles of artificial shoreline. The city was growing fast and Pat Mulroy needed to slow demand. So she did the unthinkable. She issued a moratorium on new water hook-ups.

Mr. ALAN FELDMAN (Former Vice President, Mirage Resort): She said this is going to come to a crashing end.

ROBBINS: That's Alan Feldman, at the time a vice president with the Mirage. He says Mulroy told casino owners and developers if things didn't change, the city would run out of water by 2006.

Mr. FELDMAN: 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?

ROBBINS: First, Pat Mulroy brought together local water companies under the umbrella agency she now heads - the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Next, she started pushing water conservation with promotions like this.

(Soundbite of radio ad)

Unidentified Man #4: This is America's most watered, the radio show that let's you catch the dribs who have been stealing our valley's most precious resource - water.

ROBBINS: Today it's illegal to water lawns between 11:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. New artificial lakes are banned, and the city pays property owners two dollars a square foot to rip out grass and replace it with desert landscaping.

Mulroy even got Vegas mogul Steve Wynn to build this water recycling plant underneath his Mirage Resort and the Treasure Island next door. The MGM Mirage Corporation, which then bought the hotels, installed water-saving fixtures in all 11 of its Vegas hotels. Now the company is building City Center, designed from the start as a green development - a first for Vegas. Alan Feldman, now with MGM Mirage, is so enthusiastic he shows off his bathroom.

Mr. FELDMAN: Over my shoulder in my office is a test toilet, which actually have two flush systems - a low-level flush and a higher-level flush for different uses.

Boy, it's something to tell my mother. Mom, my toilet was on public radio. Okay, here we go.

(Soundbite of toilet flushing)

ROBBINS: The Las Vegas Strip still looks like conspicuous consumption. The fountains of the Bellagio Hotel shoot water skyward, choreographed like showgirls to Elvis's music. Crowds line up every fifteen minutes to experience an effect so powerful it sounds not like water but fire.

But Pat Mulroy says in the big picture looks can be deceiving.

Ms. MULROY: The entire Las Vegas Strip uses three percent of our water resources. And they are the economic driver in the state of Nevada, bar none.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

ROBBINS: Las Vegas's biggest water waster by far: lawn sprinklers, existing lakes and golf courses. They take 70 percent of southern Nevada's water. And Las Vegas's population has more than doubled in the last 15 years. So reducing demand is no longer enough. The area needs to increase its water supply, and that's where Pat Mulroy's skills as a negotiator had been effective.

Las Vegas gets almost all its water out of nearby Lake Meade on the Colorado River, a river that western states have been fighting over since its water was divvied up way back in 1928. Mulroy got them to stop squabbling.

Rita Maguire was head of Arizona's Department of Water Resources, Pat Mulroy's competitor.

Ms. RITA MAGUIRE (President, Arizona Department of Water Resources): Her constant poking at people - moving them out their comfort zone I think causes us all to think more creatively and push the envelop fairly quickly.

ROBBINS: Pat Mulroy convinced the other states to allow Las Vegas to take more water from the river by recycling. Indoor waste water from sinks and showers is treated, then returned to Lake Meade and used again. Now Mulroy is looking beyond southern Nevada for water and Rita Maguirre says Las Vegas has an open checkbook to find it.

Ms. MAGUIORRE: They have more money than water. I think that's probably a fair statement, and they're using that money to bring more water.

ROBBINS: There's the multibillion dollar plan to pipe water from rural Nevada - plans to build a reservoir to increase Colorado River water for California farmers so Vegas can take a bigger share of the river, even a proposal to build desalting plants on the coast of Mexico. But critics raise the perennial Western question. How many people can an urban area in an arid landscape absorb? The Sierra Club's Jeff Van Ee, a longtime Las Vegas resident, fears getting more water will just encourage more growth.

Mr. JEFF VAN EE (Sierra Club): And will the argument and will the situation be any different when we have four million people and we have global warming and a long-term drought? What will we do then?

ROBBINS: Build up, not out, says Pat Mulroy. Encourage sustainable growth with high-rises instead of more sprawling suburbs. She admits that's a big change in her thinking.

Ms. MULROY: I would not have described myself as very environmentally responsible back in the early '90s. Over the years I have not only grown 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.

ROBBINS: Even as the city secures water for its future, Pat Mulroy's latest project restores the past - a park called the Springs Preserve, where the city began with its own water source in the middle of the Mojave, which gave the place its name - Las Vegas, the Meadows.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, more negotiation, less fighting over water rights in the West and Southwest and how that came to past.

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