Monday, Aug. 29, 2005 | 11:12 a.m.
SAN DIEGO -- The chief of Southern Nevada's water agency capped a three-day conference on Friday with a warning: The Silver State will do whatever it takes to protect its water future.
Southern Nevada "is going to be as aggressive as it needs to be over the next several years," Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, told water managers from California and the West.
Mulroy was referring to the specter of potential legal battles hanging over the Urban Water Institute conference and a simultaneous meeting across town of the seven basin states of the Colorado River, including Nevada.
The stakes for some of the players are huge, and are being driven by the threat to the river posed by years of drought and by increasing demand and competition for the river resource.
In the lower basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada, Arizona is concerned that its junior rank among the three states could mean it bears the brunt of potential cuts.
Nevada is fighting for the right to take water from the Virgin River, a Colorado River tributary, without being charged for that taking from the state's allotment from Lake Mead.
And California is fighting to maintain supplies for farmers and more than 20 million users in the urban southland.
The upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming face another threat that officials from those states suggest could push them into court. The 1922 Colorado River Compact appears to give the lower basin states the right to a "Compact call," a demand that the upper basin send down 8.23 million acre-feet of water. Such a call could mean users in the upper basin would lose some or all of their access to the river water.
Mulroy said Southern Nevada wants to avoid litigation and wants to contribute to settling the divisive issue of how to handle feared shortages of water, but her agency's cooperation comes with a price tag.
"We will not agree to any shortage sharing unless the issue of tributary use is settled," she said.
She pointed out that Nevada, with the only major city situated almost on the banks of the Colorado River and Lake Mead, has the smallest share of the resource -- just 4 percent of the total or 300,000 acre-feet annually. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, or enough water for two families for a year.
"This issue pushes us over the cliff and gives us no option but to go to the Supreme Court," Mulroy said.
Mulroy said Southern Nevada has successfully trimmed its water use by 20 percent over the last several years even as its population has grown by 160,000 people, and that conservation efforts, including a $32 million fund for new turf removal, continue.
Other conservation efforts continue, and water rates are going up, as the urban users in the south look to rural parts of the state for new water.
The threat of legal war was on the minds of other speakers at the conference. Herb Guenther, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, revealed this week that his state is preparing a $1.5 million war chest to pay for lawyers in the legal battles.
Guenther, who said he does not want the issues to go to court but is preparing for the worst-case, spoke on a panel with Dan Ostler, the executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, which represents the upper basin states in the ongoing negotiations on the issues.
Ostler told the water managers at the conference that the question of whether the lower basin states could issue a compact call is not resolved.
"There are some fundamental questions and differences of interpretation of the Law of the River," Ostler said.
He said the talks among the states "are making progress."
"The question remains: Can we find enough benefit for both basins to make it worthwhile?"
Gerald Zimmerman, executive director of the Colorado River Board of California, represents the interests of his state in the negotiations. He said a court battle must be avoided.
"We must have a successful effort," Zimmerman said. "There is too much at stake for each of the basin states for us not to succeed." Litigation, if it happens, is expected to be long, costly and without a surety of results for any of the players.
Mulroy told the conference that successfully avoiding the option of litigation is the test of whether the 80-year-old rules governing the use of the river can still work.
"This in our way of thinking is the ultimate test of the (Colorado River) Compact," she said. "These issues will either be resolved or it is time to shelve the compact."