Troubled waters: Las Vegas’ perpetual quest to quench itself

In Las Vegas’ quest to quench its thirst, the city has a champion in Southern Nevada Water Authority’s Pat Mulroy. And she’s worried about our water, we all should be, too.

/ Sun file photo

Discoloration around the banks of Lake Mead shows how much the water level has declined over the years.

As you watch the Colorado River blasting through Glenwood Canyon, just east of Glenwood Springs, 150 miles west of Denver, it’s hard to imagine water-shortage problems downstream. For about a half mile, the river churns violently over boulders and downed tree branches. It’s a whitewater enthusiast’s dream—or nightmare. The violence of the flow makes it far too dangerous for rafters and kayakers. You’re more likely to see kayakers a few miles downstream where the river mellows. There, the lazy flow produces a waterway that’s within 15 feet of the Denver-to-Salt Lake City rail line and next to busy Interstate 70.

It’s all the byproduct of one of the greatest spring runoff seasons the Colorado has ever seen.

Upriver, there’s more evidence. The Dillon Reservoir, one of the most accessible storage lakes of suburban Denver’s water supply, is filled to the brim.

It’s still taking in so much snowmelt that the water pours into a spillway that diverts to the Blue River, eventually finding its way to the mighty Colorado. At Arapahoe Basin, a ski resort on the Continental Divide, there was so much snow that people were still snowboarding on the Fourth of July—crazy, right? And eventually, all that water flows downstream to quench the collective thirst of the states of the Colorado River Basin, which includes the part of Nevada we call home. Several major rivers flow into the Colorado—the Green, the San Juan, the Virgin and the Gila among them—and the seven basin states siphon water out to meet their needs for drinking water and irrigating crops. The two largest reservoirs along the Colorado, Lake Powell and, right on our doorstep, Lake Mead, are gradually filling.

So with all this good news about near-record snowpack and raging rivers in the high country rapidly refilling lakes, we can all breathe a little sigh of relief, right? In a word: No.

Pat Mulroy, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the Las Vegas Water District, has no intention of letting off the gas on a major construction project to build a third intake to draw water from Lake Mead, a controversial proposal to pipe water from eastern Nevada’s Snake Valley area. Or, for that matter, an in-your-face conservation message that includes images of little old ladies kneeing negligent water wasters in the groin. Mulroy, who has lived in Southern Nevada for more than three decades and was the primary architect of the water authority that began operations in 1991, is not only pressing to complete the third intake on schedule—completion is expected by 2014—she’s also negotiating to transport groundwater from beneath central- and eastern-Nevada ranch land, much to the chagrin of those residents. She’s continuing to press a massive public works proposal that would divert water from flood-stricken regions of the Midwest to replenish aquifers and could be used by people currently drawing water from the Colorado River Basin.

“Our sole objective is to protect this community,” Mulroy says at the authority’s headquarters, a campus that’s also home to the Springs Preserve, a celebration of the early inhabitants of the Las Vegas Valley and their environment, and to a groundwater wellfield. Mulroy explains that the authority wants to be prepared for any scary eventuality, and the decade-old drought is Exhibit A for the need to plan for the worst.

“It has to be in our planning,” Mulroy says. “In the ’90s, we were told this drought wasn’t possible. We have to remember that this one year doesn’t solve the Colorado River problem. It took us 11 years to get as low as we got last year. We’re coming back slightly, but we’re still going to have an enormous bathtub ring around Lake Mead. If next year is another dry year, we’re right back where we started.”

Considering 90 percent of Southern Nevada’s drinking water comes from Lake Mead, developing a third intake to the lake is a great drought insurance policy, she says. Intake No. 3 is the biggest public works program on the authority’s agenda. Approved by the authority’s board of directors in 2005, the $700 million project will enable the authority to continue to pump water if the lake level ever plunges to 1,000 feet above sea level.

Currently, it’s at 1,105.8 feet and the lake’s capacity is at 1,219.6 feet. At its low point during the drought, in November 2010, it was at 1,081.9 feet.

Although the lake level is going up, the authority won’t shut down the third straw project because it would cost too much to close it down and restart it.

“We’re past the point of no return,” Mulroy says. “It’s like the decision MGM Resorts had to make when they were considering shutting down construction on CityCenter. Just to shut it (the third straw) down would cost $100 million and we’d have a $42 million boring machine just sitting there. Why do you stop now? The cost to demobilize is so enormous that it’s simply not cost effective to do it.”

Mulroy also says the authority won’t back off on plans to apply for groundwater rights in northern Clark, Lincoln and White Pine counties. As part of those plans, the authority is attempting to get rights-of-way from the Bureau of Land Management to build and operate production and treatment facilities, as well as a pipeline.

“The only reason we’re pursuing the instate project is to preserve an option in case things get so bad there’s no other alternative,” Mulroy says. “We have to have it as an option, ready to go to construction if, and when, conditions dictate.”

Mulroy says the instate groundwater plan is a water portfolio diversification strategy. The authority once looked at desalting ocean water from Southern California and pumping it to Nevada.

“We penciled it out,” Mulroy says, “but the power bill alone for pumping the water from the ocean to Southern Nevada would be about $400 million, which would just about take our annual budget.”

Not surprisingly, ranchers who live in the affected areas of Snake Valley northeast of Las Vegas aren’t happy about the authority’s plans to drill for groundwater. They fear the pumping would deplete the water table and turn the valley into a wasteland. Residents of the area who share the aquifer with neighbors across the state’s border to the east have enlisted the help of Utah legislators in an attempt to block the authority’s efforts. It could take years for the issue to be resolved.

Another strategy the authority will continue is its heavy emphasis on conservation—a plan that has yielded amazing results.

“The community has, quite frankly, blown me away in their response to conservation,” Mulroy says. “We’ve reduced our demand for water to 229,000 acre feet, down from 325,000 acre feet. We’ve cut our water usage by one-third.”

The authority says Southern Nevada’s annual water consumption decreased by nearly 32 billion gallons between 2002 and 2010, despite a population increase of 420,000 during that time period.

The savings came as a result of an aggressive public awareness campaign that includes turf limitations, rebate programs for converting grassy areas to desert landscaping, seasonal watering restrictions and instruction on tracking down hidden leaks, in-home water audits and retrofitting faucets and shower heads. Watering restrictions have been punctuated by in-your-face public service announcements and television commercials.

It all raises the question: How much of the decline in water use is conservation, and how much of it is the effects of the down economy?

“We can’t disaggregate at this point, but I know that conservation is an enormous part of it,” Mulroy says. “How much of the conservation it is, we’ll know when the economy starts coming back.”

Over the years, the authority has teamed with the Colorado River Commission of Nevada, the state’s advocate in the Bureau of Reclamation’s management of the Colorado River Basin.

The seven states of the river basin agreed in 1921 to allocate the resources of the Colorado. The end result was the Colorado River Compact of 1922. The document allocates 7.5 million acre-feet for the lower basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada. According to the agreement, 4.4 million acre-feet per year goes to California, 2.8 million to Arizona and 300,000 to Nevada. Despite shifting demographics, the allocation has never changed, but commission officials say representatives of each state are collegial and agreed long ago that it would be better for everybody to resolve disputes among themselves, rather than take them to court.

“They’ve found, especially in the last decade, that working collectively is better than working adversarily,” says McClain Peterson, manager of the natural resources group for Colorado River Commission of Nevada.

Peterson says during the drought years, the states came up with creative ideas to make sure everybody gets their fair share of water. In 2007, they came up with coordinated operating guidelines for the management of Lakes Powell and Mead to balance water storage.

Basin states have also developed water-banking agreements among themselves so that states like Nevada can send water downstream when supplies are high and not release as much later when supplies are down. California, Arizona and Nevada also worked toward the development and management of the Warren Brock Reservoir in California’s Imperial Valley, which is in capacity testing. That reservoir can capture water released from Hoover Dam when conditions change rapidly.

It takes about three days for water released from Lake Mead to reach the Imperial Valley. If a sudden downpour eliminates the need for the release while it’s in transit, the Warren Brock Reservoir can capture the release for future use instead of allowing it to go downstream to Mexico, which could use the water without counting it toward its legislated allotment.

If innovative thinking is the key to solving Southern Nevada’s complex water puzzle, then Mulroy has a doozy of an idea. She suggests a massive public works project that not only could help relieve Colorado River Basin users but help solve the recurring problem of flooding in the Midwest.

“To me, it’s just counterintuitive,” she says. “One man’s flood-control project is another man’s water supply. You’ve got to remember that Hoover Dam was built as a flood-control project. That was its fundamental purpose: To prevent further flooding of the Imperial Valley down in Southern California.”

The idea is to build diversion dams for flood control and move the water to aquifers beneath the farmlands of Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado. If Colorado farmers don’t have to use Colorado River Basin water for their crops, it makes more water available to downstream users, like us.

“It makes no difference to the corn and the alfalfa whether it gets Colorado River water or Mississippi water or Missouri water,” she says.

“You could improve the transportation and cargo transports on the Mississippi River, which have been severely impaired this year by flood conditions, and at the same time provide some security for those communities that have lost everything by pulling some of that water off and moving it. My friends in New Orleans say, ‘Take it tomorrow, please!’ Their wetlands are being destroyed. It’s more water than the system down there can handle. Let’s use it. Let’s recharge the Ogalala aquifer, let’s replace some Colorado River users. Let them use some of this and leave the other water in the Colorado River for those states that are west of the Colorado. Let’s start thinking about this the way we thought about our national highway system.”

If a Missouri-Mississippi flood control project were implemented, Mulroy says she’d stop pressing the Snake Valley project. After this year’s floods in North Dakota, she says, people are starting to talk about it again.

“Every flood makes people start thinking about it,” she says. “And from an economic standpoint… building the national highway network was an enormous economic boon to the country, post-Depression. You build this kind of network and you could effectuate a number of jobs in the short term and provide economic opportunities.

“The instate project wouldn’t be needed because at that point what you’ve done is securitize the Colorado River. You’ve made the Colorado River much more resilient and you’ve augmented the entire river system to the benefit of seven states and two countries.”

Now that’s something to wet our whistle.

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  1. Perhaps the city fathers of Las Vegas could restrict growth for a change? Now is the time to do it when there already is no growth so that when it returns we don't have the overdevelopment that started this problem to begin with!

  2. Having lived all over the Midwest, south, north and southern California and being form Nevada it's heartbreaking to see so much water in the Midwest causing destruction and destroying crops, entire towns, and the taking fertile top spoils out to sea.

    People complain about the cost but when considering the constant repeating costs of destruction, rebuilding and losses in crop revenue and jobs I can't see how it's not cheaper for America to build a super canal project right across the middle of the country.

    Its time for American innovative thinking, a massive canal across the country for load balancing would be like a huge westward migration of proportions in development. The jobs it would create in the short term (20 years for such a project) like what the Chinese are doing in Panama (most Americans have no idea they are building a new canal there instead of us), but that water way could balance flooding across the country, bring water to desolate wastelands in the west that are good for nothing right now, new towns and farming that will not only feed us but the entire world could spring up in the vast lands we have that are used for nothing, not even animals as many of these places are so desolate very little life survives in it.

    Recreational uses, greening of the nation, new cross county shipping lanes getting products off the more expensive roads and into more fuel efficient cargo lanes, bring water to more of California which can supply crops to many more people at a much lower rate and then deliver those products more effectively across the massive canal faster that trucks and in larger bulk movements than even rail can support.

    Just as Dams, rail, and freeways created new industrial centers all over the world, water canals do the same thing, only much more efficiently, its time for a coast to coast canal in America with splinter canals as load balancing where ever there is flooding, and balancing that water to drought areas where ever they might be. Our nation would be so much more productive, reducing costs and resource effectiveness.

    In the past we had leadership set a vision for Space, its time for leadership to set a vision for a modernization of AMerica, high speed rail, rebuilding our super highways, bridges and freeways based on modern technologies and a massive canal system to utilize the flood waters and balance them across a super system that would benefit the entire world.

    Its time to lead and stop whining and fighting.

  3. We live in an extreme desert. The business community should be sensitive to our locals who have to live here and work here. But it seems we take the hardest hits every month. Las Vegas just isn't worth it anymore. Las Vegas does not deserve the amount of energy we locals put into it to keep it all going. It does not give back. But that is the nature of this area. Nothing but the harshest and hardiest of life forms can make it. That means though that these harsh and hardened ways make for an environment that is abrasive and taxes the body and the soul. Our very severe lack of clean inexpensive water is our number one problem here. It is the minimum basic requirement needed to sustain life (besides air) and it is wasted and abused by the millions of gallons. All of this comes at a top dollar for the department responsible because it is the one thing that is in the most demand. Without it we die and they know it so they charge top dollar and they get it. The ask for special laws and rules related to their work and they get it. They literally have autonomy when it comes to serving us our helping of income generating, smelly, nasty tasting...for lack of a better word, water. When was the last time you drank out of a drinking fountain or garden hose? Not in Nevada baby.

  4. This is a great infrastructure project that could be built with labor camps of men like was done during the depression. Just have to get the Union OK to use non union and low wage scale workers ( like $15 an hour compared to $45 an hour union) so the project would not be a giant cost overrun labor wage intensive pork barrel type thing.

  5. "Nothing but the harshest and hardiest of life forms can make it."

    Precisely, Mr. Sauer. If it's too hot, get out of the kitchen.

  6. Part 1 of 2

    As a person who spent close to 10 years litigating water shortage cases outside Nevada, I have to say that FACTS rather than opinions are the most important thing to consider.

    About 2 years ago the Scripps Institute out of San Diego issued a scientific study indicating that the Colorado River is going to run close to dry in the near dry in the relatively near future. To me, that is a FACT of great concern.

    Normally, local and state politics on water shortage issues are driven by campaign contributions from large land developers and national homebuilders, who don't care whether the buyers of their products have potable water 5-20 years in the future. That certainly was the case in Las Vegas during the housing boom. Instead, at this point in time, Las Vegas is drowning in vacant homes, including a huge "shadow inventory" owned by banks and not listed in the MLS. Apartment rents are dropping, because the population is dropping, and thus new apartments are not being built. The "national homebuilders" have a huge inventory of completed lots in the Las Vegas Valley and very few buyers for newly built homes. These land developers and national homebuilders have no room in their budgets for large campaign contributions to affect water policy. So, by fate, Nevada has gotten a break in terms of time to figure out what to do about the loss of Colorado River water.

  7. Part 2 of 2

    The other salient fact on the "build the pipeline" to NE Nevada issue is the FACT that the vast majority of ground water in that part of the State of Nevada is legally OWNED by the State of Nevada. The Nevada State Engineer is required by Nevada law to use Nevada's ground water for the benefit of the PEOPLE of the State of Nevada.

    As a result, the undisputable FACT is that there are close to 2 Million people living in the Las Vegas Valley. As a result, when push comes to shove, in litigation over proper uses of ground water OWNED by the State of Nevada, the State Engineer will ultimately be slapped with a court finding of "abuse of discretion" if he allows Las Vegas to run out of potable water, while leaving state OWNED water in the ground in NE Nevada. This principle is grounded in the U.S. Supreme Court's "Okie" cases, where the rednecks in California's Central Valley tried, through their Legislature, to make it illegal for other white people, the Okies, to move into the Central Valley. The U.S. Supreme Court said that Americans have the right to travel, and the right to move where they want, without hindrance by state officials. As a result, the chance that Northern Nevadans or environmentalists or rancher/farmers can "make Las Vegans move away" by starving them of STATE OWNED water is non-existent. That policy goal will be defeated under the longstanding weight of the "Okie" cases, and later cases where states maneuvered to prevent blacks from moving from the South to northern industrial states. Ultimately, if need be, the issue of those three interests groups ("rurals", farmer/ranchers and environmentalists) maneuvering to deny Las Vegas potable water OWNED BY THE STATE OF NEVADA will end up in the Federal courts, and "the rurals" and the environmentalists will lose in court.

    Pat Mulroy is so demonized, that the best thing she could do for the people of Clark County, who are her employer, is to resign or retire. However, that doesn't mean Pat Mulroy isn't correct. Las Vegas Valley needs a second source of water beyond the Colorado. Whether it is this pipeline to NE Nevada or some other solution is a political decision, with an ultimate cost to the state.

    However, the key point to be made now is that the ground water in NE Nevada is OWNED BY THE STATE, not by the farmer/ranchers or the residents of rural communities who are constantly whining that "Las Vegas wants to take our water". It's not your water northern Nevada. THAT'S A FACT.

    And, in addition, there's no basis in Nevada law to deny water to people, to set it aside for grass, range cattle, trees or animals. Sorry NRDC, Sierra Club and CFBD. You are not in California. We have no equivalent of NEPA, CEQA and no state "endangered species act". THAT's A FACT.

    The State Engineer is obligated to put the interests of PEOPLE first. The roughly Two Million people in Las Vegas Valley to be more precise.