Nevada Water Maven: “I Would Not Declare the Drought Over on the Colorado River”

By John McChesney, Director of the Rural West Initiative

Pat MulroyPat Mulroy heads up the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which supplies water to the Las Vegas Valley. Las Vegas gets 90 percent of its water from the Colorado River. Nevertheless, Mulroy supervises one of the smallest straws sucking water from the Colorado. By way of comparison, Nevada is allocated 300,000 acre feet of water from the Colorado, while California can suck up 4.4 MILLION acre feet. But don’t let appearances fool you. Mulroy is one of the strongest voices for seven-state, basin-wide agreements on how the precious flow of the Colorado should be apportioned, especially in times of shortage.  Her grasp of the demands on the river, from its headwaters to its trickle into the Sea of Cortez, is formidable. Witness the sweep of this description, where she ties the Colorado system into the Bay-Delta system of California. For those of you who are not water wonks, Metropolitan refers to the Metropolitan Water District, which serves 26 cities and water agencies in southern California.

We recently interviewed Mulroy about the 11 year drought on the Colorado, about whether the huge snowpack this year means the crisis is over, and about what should be done going forward. You can read the interview here, but I think it’s more interesting to listen to her, so we are providing audio as well. First, though, a note about Lake Mead water levels, since they come up over and over again in this discussion. Mead is full at 1229 feet, it has averaged 1173 feet, its drought level is 1125, and its critical shortage level is 1025. 


Interview with Pat Mulroy, Southern Nevada Water Authority
Duration: 20 minutes (download as podcast)

Read on for transcript and more audio clips » 

A Tour of the Colorado River

Pat Mulroy: The Colorado River starts in Wyoming. As it comes down into Colorado, there’s a massive aqueduct that moves the Colorado River out of its watershed across the continental divide, to the Kansas Nebraska Watershed, to the front range of Colorado. It then moves down, leaves the Colorado River basin, travels across the Utah desert to the Wasatch front. For those cities, and those agricultural users outside the watershed it comes on down to New Mexico. It leaves the Colorado River Watershed, it goes over to the Rio Watershed by going to Albuquerque coming to the lower basin, you know the 380 mile aqueduct going to the central cities of Arizona, the 600 mile aqueduct that goes into the coastal cities of Southern CA and to the extent that metropolitan takes half of its supply from the bay delta and half its supply from the Colorado River it connects to San Francisco when Metropolitan is stressed at the Bay-Delta it puts greater strain on the Colorado River. If Metropolitan is strained in the Colorado River it puts greater pressure on the Bay-Delta. So everything from the Bay-Delta on south going east to Wyoming and over into Kansas and Nebraska is all connected.

John McChesney: I want to get started by backing up a little bit. You recently had Lake Mead at a level of 1,096 feet and as I understand it if it had dropped to 1,075, a mere 21 feet, that would have triggered shortages and what would that have meant to Nevada, to Las Vegas if that had happened?

Pat Mulroy: Well, we actually last summer got as low as 1,083, so we’ve been lower than the 1,096 level. We adopted the strategy that we were going to reduce southern Nevada’s water consumption early on a permanent basis rather than react and cause economic disruption and cause draconian drought measure being implemented. So at 1075, quite frankly, nothing happens to southern Nevada. We’ve already conserved well beyond what our cut would be. We don’t run into trouble until we hit 1050 and at 1050 we would lose our upper intake, and that represents 40% of our capacity. So what we’re doing right now is building a third intake. We’re going down 700 ft. and boring 3.5 miles under Lake Mead to elevation 860.  860 is below Dead Pool and at that point we’ve replaced the capacity of our upper intake and can protect the community. So from a resource perspective we can weather the cuts at all three levels. Our conservation measures have been extremely effective. We’ve gone from delivering 325, 000 acre feet net from the Lake Mead in 2002 to this last year 229. 

Is the Drought Over?

John McChesney:  In California, our governor declared that the drought is over because we had a really good snow pack, you have a good snowpack in the Rockies this year. What’s going to be coming downstream from Lake Powell into Lake Mead this year? 

Pat Mulroy: In April, under our shortage agreement, in April of every year Interior has to firm up how much water they will be releasing from Lake Powell to Lake Mead and over the past eleven years we have been receiving no more than 8.23 million acre ft. which is below the demand so Lake Mead’s been dropping. 9.5 go out of Mead every year and when 8.23 only come in, Mead drops. This year because of the precipitation that occurred in the upper basin, Interior has announced that they will release 11.56 million acre ft. from Powell to Mead so Mead will slightly recover. Much of what happens on a going forward basis is how much inflow we have in the summer months in the lower basin tributaries to see where we end up in the year by September 30th which is the end of the water year. We will be either be at elevation 1105 or 1089 depending on what the summer monsoons and summer inflows do for Lake Mead. I would not declare the drought over on the Colorado River. What I would say is we’ve benefited from one really good year of hydrology. It avoided the point that all of us have been dreading which is when the first shortage declaration is made in lake mead, but it can turn around again next year.

Serious Consequences

John McChesney: Why the dread? That’s a pretty strong word.

Pat Mulroy: Well, because the further you go down in Lake Mead the faster your rate of decline. Your risk exposure becomes that much greater. Once you pass 1075 you’re starting…imagine a V, you’re starting to get in the lower reaches of the V so the time it took to get from 1100 to 1075 is longer than it takes to get from 1075 to 1050. And none of us have, or the states, haven’t yet had the discussions what do we do if the Lake Mead drops below 1025. I mean, you have to imagine as it rapidly approaches elevation 1000, at 1000 Lake Mead, which has a total capacity of 26 million acre feet, will have less than 5 million left in the reservoir and an annual demand of 9.5. So the cuts that were implemented getting from 1075 down to 1025 will be nothing compared to the cuts that will occur once you get below 1025. To put that in some kind of perspective for you, I mean, between the states we’ve agreed to cumulative cuts of around 500,000-acre feet by 1025. Below that, in order to stabilize that reservoir at all, you’re going to have to make cuts from between 3-5 million acre feet of use. Now that gets to have some pretty serious consequences. 

The 2007 Interim Agreement

In December, 2007, the seven states of the Colorado River basin came together and hammered out a set of interim guidelines on how to allocate Colorado River water in the event of shortages. Those guidelines remain in effect until 2026. But some river experts believe that the seven states can’t wait until 2026 to shape policy that takes into account increasing demand and the projected effects of climate change…temperature increases of 5-7 degrees and an 8-20 percent decrease in stream flow on the Colorado. Doug Kenney of the Western Water Policy Program at the University of Colorado says demand has outstripped supply even in good years and the new river policy needs to be generated now. I asked Mulroy if she agreed with him. (JM)

Pat Mulroy: Let me answer that question in two ways. First of all, yes, I absolutely agree that something needs be done beyond the 2007 agreement. I would argue with him that at the point we are at now it is not demand outstripping supply for the very simple reasons that the overall division between agricultural use and urban use in the Colorado River basin has not changed. It’s still 85% agricultural use and 15% urban use. We, while we were reducing our water demands by almost a third we increased our population by 400,000. I think the key to what we expect to be able to use in urban areas is a key ingredient on a going forward basis. Now is there a wall you are going to hit when you’ve conserved all you can and you will start really creeping up in your aggregate cumulative demand, I would agree. 

Climate Change

Pat Mulroy: I think the more threatening component of this is shifting climate. The reservoirs on the Colorado River, the compacts, the relationships between the states were all predicated on a flow regime that, let’s be very frank, were some of the wettest years on the Colorado River. So even if you didn’t have climate change looming large out there on the horizon you would still one day hit a wall. I think it’s for that reason that the Bureau of Reclamation, in concert with the seven states, is embarking on an augmentation study to see how do you protect some of the most productive agricultural land in the western united states and 30 million people west of the Rockies on a going forward basis during the century and I’ve become a great skeptic of probabilities. We in the water community have a rich tradition of wanting to look at probabilities. You know, looking in the rear view mirror saying this is the hydrology we’ve experienced. Yeah, we’ll modify it a little bit with tree rings and we’ll use that as a basis on which to make probability assumptions going forward. Quite frankly I think climate change is going to take all those probabilities and you might as well throw them away. Our new approach is if it is possible it has to be within your planning horizon. As a water manager you have to look out 50, 60 years at a minimum and know what you’re going to do if the worst hits.

Personally I tend to believe that the strains on this river system are going to require a much, much closer working relationship than we’ve even been able to forge over the last twenty years in the basin. I mean we’ve made great progress between metropolitan, the central Arizona project, and ourselves. We used to be fierce combatants. We now do everything together. Competition needs to be taken out of the whole water management regimen and a sense of realizing that fierce independence will not get you where you need to get to go and relying far more heavily and trusting in a more, let me call it, a sophisticated interdependence. Recognizing that interdependence and knowing that there are great strengths in that interdependence is the only way the urban areas in this river community can survive moving forward. And at some point the agricultural community is going to have to become a party to that interdependence. 

Tear up the 1922 Compact?

John McChesney:  I love this quote from an article that appeared in the Economist recently it says “the law’s seniority rules theoretically mean that, for example, that taps to Las Vegas would be shut completely before a single lettuce grower in California’s Imperial county lost a drop.” And then they go on to quote you says this quote “idiocy of who gets cut first and second, as Ms. Mulroy calls it, gives rise to the political dimension.” Do you tear up the law of the river and do you go back and take that 1922 compact apart and start over? How you go forward?

Pat Mulroy:I think taking apart the 1922 compact is a total waste of time because, as you know, the compact was ratified by every legislature signed by every governor approved by Congress, signed by the president. There isn’t a legislator in any of the states that would quote lose supply that would get reelected having agreed to that kind of a regimen. Having said that, however, the compact is flexible enough. I mean its foundation is that seven states can do whatever seven states can agree to do. Now I believe I stand by that statement that the whole western premise of first in time first in right has lost is usefulness,  particularly in relationship to community to community, city to city, state to state. I mean when you stand back and you look at that shortage regimen, if I have shortage let’s say I have to cut, and this is hypothetical, 100, 000 acre feet of use. If I can spread that 100,000 over the largest possible base, everybody’s share of the 100,000 becomes manageable, but if I take that 100,000 and try to offload it on my neighbor--at that point the burden becomes unbearable for him, and the political reactions start occurring.

It takes me full circle back to what a said before. I think there are enough flexibilities in this that we can overcome these first-in-time, first-in-right provisions that we hang on to so dearly. I mean, for example, we are paying the state of Arizona 350 million dollars to store their unused water in their groundwater basins for our future use. We’re covering their cost. That allows us during shortages, to the extent that Phoenix, Tucson, their cities aren’t shorted, to be able to take water out of that groundwater basin. During Metropolitan’s shortage period all the water we were conserving in southern Nevada we were giving to southern California with the understanding that one day when we needed it we would get it back. It’s that kind of relationship that will start blurring and muting the negative effects of the first in time first in right doctrine. 

Upper Basin, Lower Basin Split

John McChesney: Somebody said to me that one of the big problems with the ‘22 compact is it put a hard figure on the upper basin’s obligation to deliver water. 8.6 million ft. I believe that’s correct.

Pat Mulroy: It's 75, no its 75 million over 10 years.

John McChesney: 75 over ten? but in any case there’s a hard figure there and if they can’t deliver that, the person I'm quoting said, it would’ve been better if the two basins split down the middle without putting a hard figure on it. Do you think that’s coming at some point the hard figure disappears?

Pat Mulroy: I don’t think you can get past the discussion,  you can’t get past the consequences what you do below 1025 without that discussion. I think we took a baby step in that direction when we set that issue aside and the lower basin agreed that for the next 25 years as long as our interim agreement is in place that we would not make a call on the upper basin, because that’s the fear of the upper basin that the lower basin will make a call and force delivers. The fear of the lower basin is that the upper basin will horde the water if you will in colloquial terms that they will build reservoirs and structures in the upper basin and store that water and artificially prevent it from being released to the lower basin. When we re-operated the way Powell and Mead work together, we took a baby step in the direction of looking at the basin as a whole. I don’t think you’re going to be able to. If you and I were still going to be alive in the year 2099 and we were going to have this conversation, I think the dialogue would be all 7 states are talking about all 7 states and how to manage shortages rather than this artificial divide between the upper and the lower basin. I think that’s going to have to become a thing of the past at some point. 

Farmers vs. Cities

John McChesney:  It sounds to me like you think that agricultural in the Southwest is going to have to undergo some major transformations in the future because of the cities in the Southwest needing water. But I’m curious about where you would have agricultural makes it sacrifices first?

Pat Mulroy: See I’m not willing to make that kind of draconian statement. It’s a common belief in municipal circles, and I wouldn’t say that at a water manager level, but for the person on the street there is this belief that you can simply go into an agricultural community buy their water, lease their water, do whatever you need to do, separate them from their water, dry out the fields and move that water to urban use. I think that’s a simplistic,  a way too simplistic approach. If the United States Department of Agriculture is saying that food production has to increase 50 % in the next 20 years, forty percent of the world’s land is already in agriculture production, the global population is exploding, we have a global economy,  food grown in the United States feeds any number of places in the world, you don’t make those kinds of decisions and simply say that people will be able to shower and water their lawns and drink water from their tap but they won’t have any food to eat. I mean some of these agricultural districts in the Colorado River basin, particularly in southern California, they represent 10-11 percent of the country’s fresh winter fruits and vegetables. I think it isn’t a matter of one suffering at the need of another. I think there is an opportunity when there are excess supplies that agricultural join the table.

I think cities should have the opportunities to be able to invest in improvements in agricultural irrigation so that water savings might be able to transfer to cities. I think there is a much more iterative year to year water management strategy. I mean if I were to develop an integrated resource plan, say for the entire Colorado river basin, it would be one that would look at where do you have opportunities in any given year because as the hydrology changes and as the conditions change you’re going to have to make adjustments. It’s just been frustrating for us on the urban side of the ledger that the agricultural community feels so threatened that they’ve rarely been willing to come to the table and become a partner with the cities. I think there’s a partnership there that appreciates the critical role that these agricultural communities and this agricultural production plays in the overall fiber not only of this country but internationally and at the same time we look to maximize those water resources that are available for both the benefit of the agricultural community and the municipal community. 

Last modified Mon, 4 Jul, 2011 at 8:00