Friday, May 1, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Pat Mulroy is the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the agency tasked with ensuring that residents and businesses have enough water to thrive.
That mission has become more difficult as a long drought and climate change are hitting the Colorado River hard.
The Water Authority is aggressively seeking and acquiring new sources of water, some of them controversial and all of them expensive. It’s also trying to get the community to cut back water use so that as water becomes scarcer in the West, it can adjust more smoothly.
In her role, Mulroy is ultimately responsible for the survival of the Las Vegas Valley.
IBLV: What is the Southern Nevada Water Authority and what is its role in the community?
Mulroy: The authority was created in 1991 by all the (water) agencies coming together and pooling their resources and sharing facilities to be able to conserve in Southern Nevada and bring in new water resources. That was the original idea behind the authority, and so far it has worked very well.
What is the authority’s budget and where does it come from?
For the Water Authority, there are really two budgets. The Water Authority is not really an operating agency as much as it is a capital agency. Most of its job is building capital projects, buying water resources. It’s operating arms are the two treatment plants, really, and then its conservation crew.
The operations portion of the Water Authority is paid for by what’s called a wholesale delivery charge. Every member agency pays the authority for every acre-foot of water that the authority delivers to the member agency. So Boulder City, Henderson, North Las Vegas, the (Las Vegas Valley) Water District all pay per every acre-foot for what they use. That pays for the operations.
The capital side of this, we’ve already built $2 billion worth of facilities with the second intake (valve that pumps water from Lake Mead to Las Vegas) and the second treatment plant, is paid for through a funding formula that was established through a citizens’ committee in the mid-1990s. Fifty-seven percent of the costs are born by connection fees, 28 percent is paid for by a sales tax that the voters approved in mid-1990s with a 73 percent margin, and 15 percent comes from regional water rates, both the rate itself and what’s called the reliability surcharge, where the commercial (customers) pay more than the residential.
Currently the regional water rate is 10 cents, and it’s tacked on to every water bill no matter where you live in the valley. And the agencies remit that revenue to us.
You mentioned earlier that there are several member agencies. Who are they, and what is the Water Authority’s relationship with those agencies?
There are five principal member agencies and then two other member agencies. The five main principals that are bearing essentially all of the cost of the authority are the water agencies. Those are Boulder City, Henderson, North Las Vegas, the Las Vegas Valley Water District and the Big Bend Water District down in Laughlin — anybody (in Nevada) who takes Colorado River water. We also have a representative from Las Vegas because it’s responsible for wastewater and the Clark County Reclamation District, which is another major wastewater agency.
How many people work for the Water Authority?
There are 434 SNWA employees.
There is engineering; the treatment plants; surface water and ground water resources, which are exclusive SNWA departments; any of the administrative departments do work for both the Water Authority and the (Las Vegas Valley) Water District.
You asked me earlier what the relationship is. Since I’m the general manager of both the Water District and the Water Authority people often ask me if that’s a conflict. The Water Authority is a partnership and it was conceived as a partnership. We spend a lot of time talking to our member agencies, meeting with them. Decisions are collective decisions — they’re never decisions we make and then impose on them.
We’re essentially the managing partner, if you were to compare this to a commercial enterprise. And it made the authority far more affordable than it would have been otherwise because a lot of costs are avoided. You don’t have to create a whole new personnel department, purchasing department, legal division — all those are shared resources between the two agencies.
How much water does Southern Nevada consume and where does that water come from?
Ninety percent of our water comes from the Colorado River and 10 percent of our resources come from local ground water supplies. The district and North Las Vegas both have ground water rights. Henderson does not, Boulder City does not and Big Bend does not. So the vast majority of our water comes from the Colorado River.
We have been steadily using less resources. In the beginning of this century we were taking 325,000 acre-feet from the Colorado River — we have reduced that to 265,000 acre-feet, so it’s a significant reduction in water use.
How much of that water is returned to Lake Mead in the form of recycled water?
We use most of our water outside, so it is used once. But anything that is used inside, anything that hits the sewer system gets reused. It either goes to a regional reuse facility in Henderson or Las Vegas and Clark County or it goes to the big treatment plants that return it to the Colorado River. For every gallon we put into Lake Mead, we can take another gallon out.
I would say that right now it’s probably close to a 70/30 split. We use about 70 percent of our water outside and 30 percent of our water inside. It used to be more than that.
Can we take as much out of Lake Mead as we want as long as we return it?
Absolutely, it’s unlimited. For every gallon we return we can take another gallon out.
There has been a lot of talk about how small Nevada’s allotment from the Colorado River is. Can we go to the federal government and ask for more water?
Um, no. In 1922 the seven states of the Colorado (River Basin) entered into a compact that divided the water in the Colorado River between two basins. The Upper Basin is comprised of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming. The Lower Basin is California, Nevada and Arizona. Each of the basins received 7.5 million acre-feet.
In the Lower Basin that water was then further divided among the three states, among Arizona, California and Nevada. California, because it had the largest agricultural production, got 4.4 million, Arizona got 2.8 million and we received the remainder, 300,000, because there was no agriculture in Southern Nevada and that was the driver on where the water was going to go.
The United States then entered into a treaty in 1944 with Mexico in which it guaranteed 1.5 million acre-feet to Mexico — that’s an obligation on the river.
What happened was that in 1922 when (the states) went through those negotiations, they used the 50 highest flow years ever recorded on the Colorado River to determine what the average flow was. That was a mistake. We have learned since that really is not the average flow and that what they thought was around 17 million or 18 million acre-feet is probably closer to 13 million or 14 million acre-feet.
So in truth, the Colorado River is already overappropriated. There has been more water given away than the river itself has.
The only reason why the two reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, aren’t empty is because the Upper Basin is not fully using its allocation.
So a compact is not something the federal government can unilaterally overturn. It would require the agreement and concurrence of the Legislatures in every one of the basin states. And the United States has entered into compacts with its states all over the country. So it would set a hideous precedence if it tried to unilaterally override it.
The result of that is that there is not a Legislature in the West that would ever give up its allocation. It would feel that it was being severed from what it perceived to be its birthright.
I think, however, over the course of the past 20 years, we have been able to put agreements into place that have afforded Southern Nevada the opportunity to take advantage of a lot more Colorado River water than it had 20 years ago.
We have entered into a banking arrangement with Arizona. We’re paying it $350 million and it is banking 1.2 million acre-feet of its unused entitlement in its ground water basins for our future use. We have a banking arrangement in California whereby water we don’t use in Nevada we can store in California and take when we need it. We’ve entered into an agreement with California and Arizona to pay for a reservoir structure on the All-American Canal and for payment of that we will receive a one-time block of water that we can take down as long as there are no shortages. So we have the opportunity. I mean, quite frankly, if we didn’t have the drought and climate change staring us in the face, we would not be pursuing the in-state water project.
We’ve also gotten the ability to take water from the Muddy and the Virgin (rivers) ... at Saddle Island (in Lake Mead) and we’ve got significant waters on the Virgin and Muddy rivers.
So if we had a Colorado River that was as healthy today as it was in the ’90s, none of the controversy that we’re having to go through right now with the in-state project would even be an issue. We wouldn’t be pursuing it at all. But the reality is that if what the scientists now believe to be the case that this is not just an isolated drought, that this is symptomatic of continuing lesser flows in the Colorado River, then there is a point of crisis that we’re going to hit.
We have two intakes in Lake Mead right now. Lake Mead is full at sea-level elevation 1,204. Our upper intake that was built in 1971 sits at 1,050. The second that we put in the mid-1990s is at 1,000 and we’re currently in the process of putting in the third intake, which will go underneath Lake Mead and come back up at elevation 890. It’s a very difficult project and a very dangerous project to build.
We are currently sitting at sea-level elevation of about 1,107 at Lake Mead. The latest report from the Bureau (of Reclamation) says Lake Mead is going to go down again this year. The snow has been evaporating in the Upper Basin, it’s called sublimation. And so what we thought might possibly be at least a close to normal year has turned pretty dastardly. So we could be as close as elevation 1,090 before the year is out. That puts us 15 feet away from the first shortage declaration.
The agreement we signed with the (Interior) secretary in 2007 along with the other Lower Basin states, at elevation 1,075 the secretary declares the first shortage and Nevada gets cut back. At elevation 1,050 he declares the second shortage, and we get cut back more. At elevation 1,025 he declares the third shortage, and we get cut back even further. Well, at 1,025 in Lake Mead you have less water than what the annual demand is. If we get to an elevation less than 1,000 we have less than 500,000 acre-feet left in Lake Mead.
The possibility of that happening puts this community in a horrible position of risk. You cannot conserve 90 percent of your water supply, it is physically impossible. You won’t have enough fire pressure in the hydrants to put out a fire. For that reason, to protect the community, we started developing the in-state project, because you have to bring water in from a place that is geologically separate from the Colorado River. You can’t depend on the river anymore.
All the exchanges, whether it’s ocean desalting that we’re working on with Arizona and California, whether it’s the banks — if you physically can’t take it, if the lake is in that dire stress, none of those work anymore. So we have to be able to bring water in from outside the basin and the only place that Nevada has is to look at its unused, unappropriated ground water, which is what we’ve filed on.
Given that, and that we’re already seeing water rationing in California for the second time in a generation, could we see some kind of water rationing scheme in Nevada and what would that look like?
Yes, we could see rationing here. Obviously there are any number of possibilities (as to what that would look like). And we have not sat down with the member agencies and developed that rationing plan — I’m being very frank with you.
We feel we’re OK at elevation 1,075 because we have the bank in Arizona we can rely on. At 1,050 I think we’ll still be OK in terms of the banks. We’ll still have water available. It’s only if we start going well below 1,050 (that we have a major problem).
Our third intake is not supposed to be finished until 2013. And we could possibly lose our upper intake as early as 2012. We would have a one-year period there where water supplies would be tight in Southern Nevada. To that end we’ve pulled all the pumps from the second intake and we’ve put in all new pumps that have a greater capacity. We would be cranking on the wells, but we would be looking to the public to help.
One of the options that is obviously on the table is that we would protect the trees and natural landscaping, but we would ban lawn watering, for one thing, which is why we’ve encouraged people to begin replacing unnecessary turf right now, because it is our biggest water user and if we really had to cut back we would brown out the lawns.
Given the dire predictions of the effects of climate change on the Southwest, is it wise for Southern Nevada to continue to grow as it has in the past?
I think we’ve proven one thing: It’s not whether you grow, but how you grow. Because that whole time period between 2003 to today, we grew by about 400,000 people and at the same time reduced our use by over 20 billion gallons.
We were growing in a very water-intense way — a lot of single-family homes with grass all around them, very spread out, sprawling communities. You look out the window now and you see a lot of high rises, you see much denser development. The way we’ve started growing here in this decade has been significantly different and it’s used significantly less water.
So can we go back to the days of the ’80s and the ’90s and grow in that way? Absolutely not. But can the community continue to allow its children to stay here and create jobs here in Southern Nevada? Absolutely. As long as were constantly aware of our water use and we’re smart about it.
The building industry is in a rut amid the recession, but once things recover, are there any water-saving changes the Water Authority would like to see in the way homes, neighborhoods and businesses are designed, landscaped and built?
Well, actually that was really starting before we drove of a cliff with this economy. There were water-smart builders — Focus Homes was one of them, it was building a very different type of community. It was building a denser community with a lot of shared common area, incorporating biking trails and hiking trails through the natural environment. And that’s what we’d like to see. When the economy kicks back in, we would really like to see the focus be on those types of development that are sensitive to our situation. They’re energy smart, they’re water smart, they include in the home the water-efficient dishwashers, washing machines, plumbing fixtures. They take advantage of the development in technology that’s available today ... And it was starting to happen on its own. When we begin to build again I would really like to see that. I think all of us at the authority would like to see that.
Should it be in the building codes?
That’s not a bad idea. I think it’s something that the various councils and commissions need to think about.
(Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) buildings are still more expensive than regular buildings and I think that will change with time. The one issue we have with the whole LEED certification is the gray water issue. We don’t necessarily have a problem with gray water reuse in the home. There is now some technology in Asia where sink and shower water feeds the toilet tank — that we don’t have a problem with because that returns to the system.
What we do have a problem with is individual gray water use for landscaping. A couple things happen: A) People no longer receive the pricing signal for outside use, and there is the real possibility that landscaping will start being put in place that we really can’t sustain in Southern Nevada. And B) the Perth (Australia) study gives us some pause. They began to actively promote the gray water systems and they have found the per capita consumption in homes with gray water systems is significantly higher than those with no gray water system.
Once you’ve paid for it and it’s yours, people feel this proprietary right to then use it in any way they want. And your landscaping water that you would not perhaps have used because you would have put in different landscaping is a shared resource with the rest of the community.
We’re not trying to be difficult about it, we’re trying to work with the LEED certification process to say that anyone that develops within Southern Nevada should be given that gray water credit right off the bat. We’re rare in that. I’m not sure there is another community in the United States that recycles its wastewater 100 percent.
The second intake is threatened by quagga mussels and the drought. What’s the status of the third intake you mentioned earlier?
Right now the access shaft is being bored. The tunnel boring machine is being manufactured in Germany — it will be delivered in October and assembled inside the shaft. (The assembly) will be completed by January and in January we will begin boring 3 1/2 miles underneath Lake Mead. And that is the dangerous part.
Quagga mussels are a concern. When we’re putting in the third intake, with the material we’re using and the chemical feeds on that intake, we’re looking to have either surface material they won’t attach to or have a chemical feed that will kill them. Quagga mussels are an enormous concern.
What makes this project so dangerous?
Hydrostatic pressure makes it dangerous. That’s the weight of stagnant water on top of it — not flowing water, but stagnant water, which is much heavier.
There is only one other project in the world that comes close to that kind of hydrostatic pressure, and that is a railroad tunnel being built in Norway under a massive aquifer.
You already mentioned the pipeline project as well as the trucking of water on the Virgin and Muddy rivers down into Lake Mead. The Virgin and Muddy river situation is unique in the West. Are the interbasin transfers you’re seeking in the pipelines project unique here as well?
There are interbasin transfers everywhere in Nevada.
In many ways it has little if anything to do with water. Because right now, as we’re sitting here, Reno is developing the exact same project to Honey Lake, building a pipeline to bring water from another basin into the Reno area, and no one is complaining. The very same environmental concerns over pumping exist there as exist here.
It’s political. It’s Northern Nevada versus Southern Nevada, old Nevada versus new Nevada, rural Nevada versus urban Nevada, and all those factors make this politically very difficult.
Where we are right now is we’ve gone to hearing on five of the basins — there are six altogether. The state engineer wants an (environmental) model built for Snake Valley.
I think a lot of the excitement around this project is Snake Valley. It’s a shared basin with Utah, and it sits on the floor of a valley beneath the Great Basin National Park. The park is on the mountain, and we’re below.
It is political with Utah. Utah has some counties that have filings in the same area and where they would want you to believe this is all about them protecting the environment, it’s not. It’s about, “Does this water go to Cedar City (Utah) or is it coming to Southern Nevada?”
We’ve been working with Nevada trying to get the Utahns to enter into an agreement on how we’re going to share the resources. And that process has been slow and arduous. All the opponents to this project, there is one hurdle they cannot cross. That is: Give us an alternative. Tell us what the alternative is to building this project. In the absence of an alternative, this community would have to be willing to risk 90 percent of its water supply.
So we’re in the middle of the (environmental impact statement) process. We’re hopeful that we will finish the environmental work by 2010.
Our strategy now is to get all the permitting done, all the environmental work done, so that if we have to, if Lake Mead hits a critical elevation that we can pull the trigger and begin construction.
How much water are we talking about?
We were hoping to get as close to 100,000 acre-feet out of this project as possible. Our attitude is that with reuse projects and with some real drought conservation in Southern Nevada that we can get through on 100,000 acre-feet.
But when Lake Mead reaches that level, the entire Southwest is at risk.
California is in the perfect storm. You’ve had a drought in the Sierra (Nevada), a judge has shut the pumps down in the (Sacramento-San Joaquin) Delta, and you have a drought in the Colorado. Southern California is the sixth-largest economy in the world. And all the Arizona cities are dependent on the Colorado River.
I think as we get closer to Lake Mead getting into critical levels, at a federal level and at a much larger interstate level we’re going to have to start talking about how we protect the river system in its entirety. We’re going to have to start talking about larger transfers and water sharing agreements that are outside the Colorado River watershed.
How much will it cost to build this pipeline?
Tell me what year it is and I’ll tell you what the cost is.
Right now we’re looking at between $3 billion and $3 1/2 billion. And a billion dollars is a substantial amount of money. But we’ve already spend $2 billion on all the facilities at Lake Mead. We have hotels that cost more than that in this community, our transportation system costs more than that in this community. Yes, it’s an enormous amount of money, but my response to that is, “What is protecting the community worth to you? Is a $3 billion investment worth making sure Las Vegas still exists in 20 years?”
Can Southern Nevada conserve enough water to prolong the amount of time before a true crisis hits?
No, because it’s driven by facilities in Lake Mead.
Our conservation helps us as a community to grow more sustainably, but we’re not going to affect the lake level in Lake Mead, not when right now we’re only taking 265,000 acre-feet. You’ve got to remember 100,000 acre-feet is a foot in Lake Mead, and California is pulling 4.4 million (acre-feet) out of that lake every year, and Arizona is pulling 2.8 million (acre-feet) out of there every year, and Mexico is pulling 1.5 million (acre-feet), and a million evaporates. So our relative contribution to the depletion of Lake Mead is minimal.
And once that lake level drops below our intake, it doesn’t matter. That’s the problem.
Now, if we conserve and we start changing out our landscaping, it will be easier for us to get through a drought. It will be easier for us to get through drought measures because the landscaping will have been converted to a sustainable level. And the demands will be way down.
And the board recognized that — it adopted a new conservation plan at the last board meeting.
Our goal had been to bring Southern Nevada down from around 350 gallons per person per day to 250 (gallons) by 2010. We hit 248 or 249 (gallons per person per day) last year, so we’re two years ahead of schedule. So the board adopted a new goal, which is to reach 199 (gallons per person per day). That is significant given our climate.
People love to compare per capital usage community to community and it’s a fruit cocktail. It all depends on the climate in that particular area. Los Angeles has 16 inches of rain, Tucson has 11 inches of rain, Phoenix has 8 inches of rain. We, in a good year, have 4 inches of rain. Precipitation amounts makes an enormous amount of difference to how much water our customers use. So when we have little rainfall, demands are up. When it rains, demand is down. We’re driven by how much we use outside. That 199 gallon goal would be a very aggressive goal for Nevada.
What’s the deadline?
The member agencies felt more comfortable giving themselves time for that, so by 2035. I think we’ll achieve that much sooner than that.
I think they were being very conservative when they pushed back and wanted a 2035 date. They didn’t want to set a goal and then not achieve it. They would rather set a goal, set a date and then beat that expectation, than set a goal that you can’t achieve.
The Water Authority has a number of conservation programs from water-smart landscaping to pool-cover incentives. How well are these programs working, and are they being used to the extent that you would hope?
Absolutely. The grass-buyback program has been enormously successful. It’s been fully subscribed.
Every negative has a silver lining when you look for it. As bad as the economy is right now, a lot of people are looking to save wherever they can so they’re probably taking advantage of this more than they would otherwise.
Yes, they’ve been very successful.
Who can participate in these programs?
Why not just raise the cost of water?
We will raise the price of water. But it’s the reminder to people to do something. Especially in this economy you don’t want to slam people even more.
Unfortunately, the flip side of this is that the economy is so strained and connection charges have disappeared as a revenue source, so we’re very dependent on those water rates right now. So we’re looking at how little can we talk about raising them at this point.
Water rates will go up. Everybody thinks pricing alone will do it. We’ve learned that a successful conservation program has several legs on the stool. You have the pricing signal that reminds people that they need to conserve, you have the education that tells people how they can save money on their water bill and you provide them the tools with which to do it.
When you have all those, then you have a successful conservation program.
The pool-cover program is relatively new. What do you hope to achieve by it and how has it been received so far?
Evaporation off the pool is nowhere near as much a water user that grass is. So we are promoting it. I can’t tell you how many people have subscribed to it yet.
In a drought it might be mandatory. We hesitate to make people drain their pools because they lose that investment. All that plaster will crack, and it would be ugly.
Despite all the promotion for conservation, there are still many residents, especially those in older neighborhoods or on large lots, who are consuming far more water than the average American family, let alone a desert family. What is being done to bring them into the fold?
They have all the same opportunities everybody else does, but they obviously can afford it. I’m going to be very blunt.
If you saw the list of the top 100 residential water users, none of those were poor people and they can pay whatever we want to charge them. Most of them don’t even see their bill. It goes to their bookkeeper, they pay the bill, the landscaper takes care of the landscaping and they have no connection to it.
Those individuals are running the risk that they will lose their landscaping entirely if we have to go into browning out the lawns. That’s the risk they run.
And quite frankly, my husband’s a native. He’s one of the few people over the age of 60 who was actually born and raised here and he has a different attitude about it. He just feels he has a right to it because he’s a native. We had a war to take my grass out. We got it out, but we had a war.
I think it’s a generational issue. Old people don’t like to change. And there’s nothing we can do right now to force them. We can encourage them, we can raise the rates. But one day, if we have to, they will lose it. And then there won’t be any financial assistance.
You said that one of the things you’ve done is to pull out your lawns. What else are you doing to conserve water at home?
We have the front-loading washer and dryer, water-efficient fixtures on all our shower heads and faucets, we have low-flow toilets. We did all the inside, and we follow the watering schedule religiously. And I think that’s a huge key, following the watering schedule.
That just changed again recently. How can people find out what their scheduled days are?
They can log on to snwa.com. All they need to have is their address. Your day is defined by where you live.
Are there any other programs that you think are too little used?
The business community could do more to take advantage of water-saving technology. Especially the use of evaporative coolers. The large high rises use them and they’re a huge user of water. That’s the largest consumptive use the Strip has. And I know that it’s hard for them right now to invest in that kind of technology, but it’s a trade-off between the price of their water and making that kind of investment. But once the economy starts normalizing, I would hope they would really start looking at that.
Some of those properties have private wells and there are residents on the west side of the valley and probably elsewhere that have private wells. Washoe County is trying to get state legislation this session that would force private well holders in the urban areas to switch to the municipal system, even if they have a permanent water right. What is the Water Authority’s position on residents and businesses that get their water from private wells here?
We have that in Southern Nevada. Once the system is within a certain distance from that private well user, then they have to hook in and the state engineer has to enforce that.
This basin has been fully adjudicated. And there are still temporary water rights out there that have to be got off the books.
A lot of these community wells don’t have permanent water rights, they have temporary water rights and they’re a relic of the 1950s. We spent the period of the ’50s to the mid-60s as a community refusing to build a system to the Colorado River. We didn’t want to spend the money. And so the state engineer issued temporary water rights. And the intent was that once the connection to the Colorado River was built, that those properties would come off that system and go on to the municipal system.
So what he’s doing right now is that as those wells fail, the casings break or the pump doesn’t work, he’s not giving them permission to repair that well. And he’s forcing them to hook into that municipal system.
We’ve taken that one step further, and we’ve created a ground water management district in Southern Nevada. And everyone that is a ground water pumper, and the two big ones are the Las Vegas Valley Water District and North Las Vegas, pay a certain amount per year per acre-foot of water. I think it’s $40 for a domestic water well.
That goes into a trust fund, so when someone has to hook into the system, that fund pays 85 percent of the cost of hooking into the system.
If we were faced with a severe drought situation, could private well uses for aesthetic things like the Bellagio Fountains, or business uses, be revoked by the state and used by the community?
No. Those that have permanent water rights have the right to use the water as long as the water is there. That would cause riots in Carson City if you tried to change that.
Most of the farmers in Nevada use their ground water to back up their surface water supplies. If they’re in a drought and the surface water has dried up for that particular time, they fall back on their ground water supples.
We are recharging this ground water basin as part of that larger ground water management program. And 5,000 acre-feet a year is dedicated to maintain the water table for those old permanent water rights.
We couldn’t take that water. And even if we were in that kind of a drought situation, you shut off those fountains and you’ll destroy tourism in Southern Nevada. Because if you shut off the fountain in front of the Bellagio, then you’ll dry up the canals in the Venetian. Whether someone is going to be willing to come to the Venetian with dried ditches running throughout the hotel, I don’t know.
And the goal of any drought plan would be to protect the economy and protect the community at the same time. You don’t want people to lose their jobs through this. Because that’s how the Strip reacts, they lay people off if their visitor numbers are down.
It was amazing to me when I first got into this job — how sensitive the tourist market is to water stories in Southern Nevada.
We talked a little bit about gray water earlier and the Water Authority is against it for outdoor use. But one of the alternatives that is being looked at in other states is rainwater capture. It’s illegal in Utah, but not Nevada. Even though we get so little rain, would that be a good way for Southern Nevadans to conserve water?
That’s a lot of money for a little preserve. We’ve got one at the Springs Preserve.
If somebody wants to put their thimble out and catch water ... I mean, last year we had barely 2 inches of rain. It’s not worth it to us to hand out rain barrels or buckets to people to catch that. But if somebody wants to do it, have at it.
Permitted gray water systems can costs tens of thousands of dollars, and also with little overall savings. If it was a choice between somebody diverting water from their house to their yard, or hooking up a rain barrel to their gutters, what would you say they should do?
It may benefit the individual, but it won’t benefit the community. Because you’re not creating new water by using that rainwater. You’re just not. All you’re doing is watering your lawn at a cheaper rate than your neighbor. That’s all you’re accomplishing. And then you don’t have to live with conservation signals. And that’s our problem.
We as a community decided years and years ago that we would share our water and we would share our wastewater; that we would capture it collectively, we would treat it and we would return as much as we possibly can because it comes back to benefit everyone. You start having pockets where people have personal gray water use and it takes it away from the community at large.
Is the argument, then, that this water runs off the roof and down the gutters and into the storm drains and is eventually returned to Lake Mead for everyone’s benefit?
No. I don’t care about the rainwater. Have at it.
One of the things that is increasingly becoming our largest concern is climate change and what the impact of climate change is going to be on the western United States.
We as a country and as a basin have to start looking at a very different way to provide water to the communities that have grown in the West.
If people say, “Well then you shouldn’t live there,” well that dastardly deed is done. People are here, they’re living here, you’ve got large economies that are here and I don’t think the United States would want to lose those economies.
We have to have a federal conversation about what the impacts of climate change are going to be in this nation. You have parts of the country that are going to be inundated by rain, that are going to have massive flooding events. Look at what’s going on in Fargo, N.D., look what’s happening on the Missouri. The riverbed is widening because of the increased precipitation, and the snows have yet to start really melting out there. You’re going to have increased tornadoes, you’re going to have increased hurricanes.
We have not gotten our arms around and our heads around how we’re going to adapt. And aren’t there opportunities to begin to move water out of these drenched parts of the country, provide them with necessary flood control that they’re going to need so badly and begin to take some of the uses on the Colorado River system off Colorado River water and move them farther to the East.
We’ve taken water from the West now for a 100 years, maybe it’s time to start taking water from the East, rather than from the West.
That is a much larger conversation. But where we have finally begun to look at how to mitigate climate change and what we have to do in terms of changing our energy habits and where we get our energy from and what kind of cars we drive and the overall carbon emissions, we’ve not had a substantive discussions on how we’re going to adapt.
This is a long-term problem. It’s not going to go away overnight and there are fundamental changes that are going to have to happen in this country. They affect land-use planning, they affect water-resource planning, they affect a lot of things that we just almost are ... we can’t get our head around them, and we’re not having that conversation.
The SNWA is becoming increasingly worried and becoming very proactive in pushing the federal government, Congress, the (Obama) administration, to invest far more heavily into the science of adaptation and looking at the climate models in different ways and how are they going to affect the United States and what are the range of consequences.
That is a much larger conversation and we’re the canary in the mine shaft. Just like New Orleans is the canary in the mine shaft of disappearing cities from the rising sea levels, we’re the canary in the mine shaft when it comes to water supply.
You take all these impacts together and there has to be a very different kind of thinking in this country and quite frankly we’re running out of time.
So the sooner we can begin to invest in this science and the sooner we can identify what those possible consequences are and have plans in place to be ready to deal with them and know when we have to implement those plans, the better off we’re going to be.
When that national dialogue is started, how would you like to be involved?
I would definitely like to be part of the Western group that begins to look at it. We in the Colorado River water community, the seven states already funded an augmentation study. We recognize that river is short and that new resources need to be brought to the river.
Part of it is ocean desalting, part of it is conservation, part of it is vegetation management. But once you’ve done all that you have to look at significant changes in where water comes from for various users in this river system.