Sin City's Continuous Flow
Arid Las Vegas is wheeling and dealing to satisfy its outsize cravings for water
LAS VEGASYou could almost hear the clang of jackpot bells in Pat Mulroy's office. In late April, the tenacious water czar of southern Nevada chalked up another win in her two-decade crusade to satisfy Las Vegas's unquenchable thirst. This time it was thanks to a state water regulator's thumbs up on a plan to pump almost 20 billion gallons of water from a vast underground aquifer near the state's east central ranchlands, sucking water from deep beneath its hayfields and sending it 285 miles south to the quarter of a million homes served by Mulroy's Southern Nevada Water Authority.
The decision was followed days later by an even bigger coup: a historic agreement to rejigger the way Colorado Riverwater is divvied up among Nevada and the six other western states that share the lifeline. Swapping the current use-it-or-lose-it annual system for a more flexible, market-style approach, the hard-fought deal among the states marks the biggest change in the controversial "Law of the River" since it was inked some 80 years ago. It lets downriver states like Mulroy's create liquid bank accounts, allowing them to save up surplus water in wetter years, in reservoirs for instance, to use during later periods of drought, and also lets them bolster their water supplies, in part, by paying for other states to conserve, so more water might be available for Nevadaa scheme that is expected to win final approval from Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne by year's end.
"What we got was huge," the 54-year-old Mulroy boasts of what could mean a near doubling of southern Nevada's total water supply. That's enough not only to keep the Las Vegas Strip's famous fountains dancing through even the worst droughts but also to maintain the city's status as one of the nation's fastest-growing metropolitan areas; 29 percent growth just between 2000 and 2006. "It's our bridge to the future," she says.
That bridge, which she plans to reinforce with everything from cloud-seeding campaigns to south-of-the-border desalination plants, is but the latest proof that when it comes to the booming but arid American West, water increasingly defies the law of gravity. As the old saying goes, "water flows uphill ... toward money," water analyst Michael Cohen says of Mulroy's gold-tipped divining rod.
Power grab. To be sure, Mulroy's success would have been impossible without the backing of Vegas's handful of billionaire gaming and real-estate development tycoons, who have ponied up hundreds of millions in water connection charges and other feesnot to mention millions more in political contributions. A German native with chiseled features and a knack for political maneuvering, Mulroy started her bureaucratic climb as a deputy manager in Las Vegas's water district in 1985. By 1991, she'd shrewdly melded southern Nevada's once warring local water agencies into a single, far more potent authority. Mulroy then used her growing clout to persuade the city's power brokers not only to help bankroll her water grab efforts but also to abide a growing array of conservation measures.
Naysayers argue that SNWA-backed programs like those that recycle indoor wastewater and pay residents $2 a square foot to swap sod for drought-tolerant ground cover simply aren't enough to offset the impacts of an annual flood of 65,000plus new residentsimpacts not only on Vegas's water supply but on a fragile desert ecosystem currently in the depths of a seven-year drought. "Maybe we can meet our needs now, but we don't have enough water to double or triple our population," says Launce Rake, spokesman for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, a coalition of growth opponents that have fought piping water from the north. "Instead of just hurting during a drought like we are now, we'll be facing a catastrophic water shock."