In her own words: Pat Mulroy: “Water management in the Wild West: Lessons Learned”
Here is Pat Mulroy, former General Manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, in her own words, speaking at the 2014 spring conference of the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA):
On February 6, I finally decided 25 years as general manager was enough. I was living ‘Groundhog Day,’ and the only variable was when ‘Groundhog Day’ met ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ and I decided there had to be another dimension. So I took two months off, and I am now a senior fellow with the Brookings Institute. I am initiating their efforts on climate adaptation, and water resources, so I see an opportunity for us to be able to take our message to another level and begin this dialog on a larger stage.
When I first started, we always talked about water being the ‘taken for granted resource’ – that what we did was invisible and anonymous and everyone just took it for granted. Events like the drought that you are experiencing and we are currently experiencing have certainly changed people’s perspective, at least temporarily. And it’s an opportunity for us to rethink.
But it’s not just an opportunity that is of the moment. When I came into the room, I shared with Tim, I was reading the national climate assessment that’s been all over the news this morning, and I would ask you to take a good hard look at it. It’s is not pretty. It has enormous challenges for all of us, and it certainly sends one very loud message out there: the time to just go from one drought to the next drought and go into emergency management planning mode and then we get complacent again until the next drought hits – those days are going to have to end, because the droughts are going to get more severe, they are going to last longer, and they are going to become more profound and impactful.
[pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”30%”]We can identify ourselves as citizens of a town, we can identify ourselves as citizens of a city, we can even identify ourselves as citizens of a county, a state, and except for Mr. Bundy, of the United States. But we have never thought about is what is that largest constituency and citizenry with whom we share natural resources, and there are any number of points of connection.[/pullquote]
In the report, it indicates what the impact to California’s agricultural economy is going to be; there are indicators of what the consequences to the urban populations and to the environmental resources are going to be, and I think it’s a wakeup call for us. I want to share and leave with you today, a challenge. We’ve got to start thinking differently.
Probably one of my biggest frustrations and it came back to life here recently, is when I read my favorite newspaper, the LA Times. I read a story in the LA Times about how Las Vegas was going to perish because Lake Mead was dwindling, and I thought to myself, since when is Las Vegas the only user of Lake Mead. And for as prestigious and as large a news organization as the LA Times is, to perpetrate the myth throughout the state of California and to the residents of the state of California that there’s no nexus to them in what happens at Lake Mead was probably one of the most singularly irresponsible stories I’ve read in a long time. That reservoir is key – especially this year – to Southern California.
When I read the climate report, here’s what I read. Take what you read through on the Sierra Nevada resources, the Northern California resources, and the Central California resources right now due to the drought, and now have Lake Mead drop to 1000 feet. Now what happens? At elevation 1000 feet, there’s 4 million acre-feet left in that reservoir. Now what? The only reason Southern California is relatively whole today besides all the local resources, is because Metropolitan had the foresight to buy dry year options, store those in Lake Mead, partner with Arizona and ourselves, create additional resources, store them in Lake Mead, and now we have them to take out. Had that not happened, I’d like everyone who has a nexus to Southern California to figure out how you’re going to get through a resource portfolio for 2014 if Mead was sitting at 1000 feet.
The last time I was here, we talked about how interconnected the entire Colorado River Basin and all of California are. We talked about the fact that what we really are is one citizenry. We can identify ourselves as citizens of a town, we can identify ourselves as citizens of a city, we can even identify ourselves as citizens of a county, a state, and except for Mr. Bundy, of the United States. But we have never thought about is what is that largest constituency and citizenry with whom we share natural resources, and there are any number of points of connection.
This year, Mead is going to go down 20 feet as a result of the 2013 drought. 20 feet, and yet this year was a near normal year in the Upper Colorado, and so Powell is going to bounce back. Actually, additional water is going to be released to Mead when we begin water year 2014-15 in October, and despite the fact that instead of delivering 8.23 million acre-feet, Powell will be delivering 9 million acre-feet, Mead’s going to drop further. For the outflow plus evaporation is 9.5 million acre-feet. Mead is going to drop again. How many more drops can it withstand? And we all are sitting here hoping that the winter of 14-15 will replicate 13-14 rather than the one before. That’s a pretty risky proposition with some pretty dramatic consequences.
The states are now talking about what do we do to buffer against that, and that’s the conversation we need to have. And since I am now an ex and I have the luxury of being able to say anything I want … we have these various interest groups, each with their own favorite silver bullet solution. We have the conservationists. We have those that say urban conservation will solve the world’s problems. Well, they didn’t do well in algebra.
Yes, conservation is a baseline, and I’ve said it in Nevada, I’ve said it in Colorado, I’ve said it in Arizona, I’ve said it in Washington, DC. We have to be serious about it. Why are we so afraid to tell the public the truth? Why can’t we just be honest with them? And make them a part of the solution? You can’t add 2 billion more people to the planet and expect each individual to be able to use the same amount of fresh water that they used 50 years ago. It doesn’t work. The math doesn’t work.
We have the advantage of technology where little things like showerheads and washing machines and toilets all use less water today, and that technology will be driven even further, making it even more convenient and easier to be able to adapt, because at the end of the day, that’s what this is about.
[pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”30%”]Why are we so afraid to tell the public the truth? Why can’t we just be honest with them? And make them a part of the solution? You can’t add 2 billion more people to the planet and expect each individual to be able to use the same amount of fresh water that they used 50 years ago. It doesn’t work. The math doesn’t work.[/pullquote]
But it’s also about our landscaping. And I hear the sighs. People don’t want to have that conversation. But we have to. It is a baseline; without it, nothing we say is credible. We cannot continue to serve the same amount of water to each resident that we have in the past. By simply changing out landscaping, and yes, we are in a desert and there are desert areas in California, we were able in Nevada to cut our use by a third, and add 400,000 people during the same time period.
We paid our customers to take it out, so guess where that’s left Southern Nevada today. When Mead hits 1075 and Nevada has to take a reduction in their allocation, we already conserved it. There will be zero impact on the Nevada economy because we already conserved it. And that water is being banked today in California, it’s being banked in Lake Mead, it’s being banked in our own groundwater basin for that next drought, for that day when we are down to elevation 1025 or God forbid, 1000.
If we do it now, we won’t have to stand there and make apologies and excuses when the total amount that we have to give our citizenry isn’t there anymore. So conservation’s a baseline but it’s not a silver bullet.
Ocean desalting. That is Nevada’s personal favorite. Affordable desal could be economical. Look, the Australia example is great. They’ve got $9 billion worth of desalters as standby facilities. I know someone here must be from Santa Barbara. I saw the story that you’re going to spend $20 million to get yours back online again on the news in Las Vegas a couple of days ago. $9 billion and they are using a fraction of the amount of water that those facilities can produce because, guess what, it rained.
Let’s get real. The only way you can add desalting to your portfolio is if it becomes a baseload. It can’t be an on-again, off-again component of your portfolio. You can’t turn those facilities on and off. The membranes won’t last. But we have to tell our citizenry, guess what, it’s going to cost you more. You’re going to have to pay more because the blended costs across all of your resource components in that will drive it up.
So can desalting be a part of the equation? Look at places around the world where desalting is working. My two favorites are Israel and Singapore. The reason they are working is that the federal governments there are paying for them. Israel made water a national strategic initiative; Mekorot (Israeli water agency) is a national wholesaler; Mekorot pays not a dime when they receive ocean desalted water. It is subsidized by Israeli tax dollars from across the country, whether that region is benefitting from it or not. Looking at the entirety of the Isreali portfolio and saying, this is a component that all citizens will benefit from, either because it reduces stress on what they have right now or because they are actually using it. So it becomes affordable because costs are spread across the whole country. Singapore’s the same way. The entire country pays for ocean desalted water in Singapore. You can’t expect little communities to be able to absorb that kind of cost. They have to be blended into a larger portfolio.
And do we need new storage? Absolutely. If we’re going to be living between drought and flood, back and forth, why would we not want to find, whether it’s groundwater banking, whether its above ground storage, why would we not want to capture water resources during times of abundance for use during times of drought? If we all remember correctly, Hoover Dam was built as a flood control project. It wasn’t built as a water resource project. It was there to protect the Imperial Valley from flooding, pure and simple. One man’s flood control project is another man’s water resource. When I hear the President say we need to rethink water management, we do, but we need to rethink it in a larger context.
Which brings me full circle back into that connectivity. We have to educate the citizenry of this country about the complexity of water supply now, or else we’re going to have nothing but pushback. They need to understand, sitting in Los Angeles, that the water coming out of their tap came from Wyoming. They need to understand that when they hear stories that the Colorado River is under stress, that it’s going to affect their economy, their family, and their livelihood as well. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have Lake Mead at elevation 1000, and this year’s drought next year – the combined effect.
If we learned anything, we should have learned that almost by accident we made ourselves more resilient by utilizing opportunities across multiple states using multiple strengths of the various participants. Nevada has 600,000 acre-feet in the ground in Arizona. Nevada has water here in California. Met has water in the bank in Arizona. Nevada doesn’t have enough groundwater storage facilities, geographically and geologically, to be able to store that kind of water itself, but in a partnership with Arizona, it can. Mexico has storage behind Hoover Dam because their geology allows for no groundwater storage.
If we can start thinking strategically and look for strategic partners, and we say, as the Western US, those of us that are somehow tied to the Colorado River Basin, that it is time for a larger strategy, one that provides maximum protection to agriculture, to urbans, to the environment, then we can work it out. And if we can look at an integrated resource plan and blur state lines, and blur geographic boundaries, and say what is that connectivity, and what opportunities does that present – Then and only then do we have a chance.
And I’ve often said, given how energy intensive ocean desalting still is, and the strain that it puts on the nation’s energy supplies, if you were to do it volumetrically – because those of us who are dabbling that in the Colorado River basin, we’re looking at building a million acre-foot desalter in Mexico, and then pumping it back behind Imperial Dam. That takes a nuclear power plant to do that. Now building that after Fukushima in one of the most fault-riddled areas in northern Mexico – the idea simply fell by the wayside.
[pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”30%”]Sustainability isn’t an end goal – it can’t be – because the minute we reach it, conditions around us change and make it necessary for it to change again, so sustainability is a journey, but it is not a journey that we can travel alone. It is a journey that we can only travel with the right partners, with the right strategy, utilizing the right tools.[/pullquote]
If the United States wants to be helpful, the United States needs to invest in research around ocean desalting and around funding NOAA and NASA to give us the tools to be able to more adequately predict what’s going to be happening, and give us the necessary resources, that’s where the federal government can be helpful. We certainly don’t need the federal government stepping and telling us how to manage water resources in Marin County. That never proves to be very helpful.
But if we don’t’ do it, they will. They will have to, because we will have created a vacuum.
Finding those strategic partners now, looking for maximum joint benefits, and stop thinking there is a one size fits all, one silver bullet solution. It has to happen. Quite honestly, we’re running out of time. And I would hate to be standing here on that day when Lake Mead is at elevation is at 1000 and the Sierras are bone dry, because then we will react in panic mode, and nothing good ever comes out of that. And people are going to be pointing their fingers at us, saying what did you do about this? Why didn’t you expect this to happen? You should have known. It’s your business. You should have known this was possible. You were warned.
And we have been warned, all of us. As long as we keep bickering amongst ourselves, and we keep saying I have the more valid position than my neighbor, we’re never going to get anywhere. It’s very easy to fight. It’s very difficult to find joint benefit.
That, in a nutshell, is how the rethinking has to happen. I’m with your Governor. He became my all-time hero, and I’m going to end on this note, when he says I have to get bleep done.
We talk a lot about sustainability. And we keep imagining that sustainability is an end goal.
My final thought to you is sustainability isn’t an end goal – it can’t be – because the minute we reach it, conditions around us change and make it necessary for it to change again, so sustainability is a journey, but it is not a journey that we can travel alone.
It is a journey that we can only travel with the right partners, with the right strategy, utilizing the right tools.