Pat Mulroy to California: Fix the Bay Delta

Pat Mulroy sliderboxKeynote speaker Pat Mulroy opens California Water Policy Conference with a stern warning: California must fix the Bay Delta, because what happens in the Delta matters in Denver

The California Water Policy Conference, now in its 24th year, opened on March 19th with keynote speaker Pat Mulroy.  The former general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, Ms. Mulroy is now a senior fellow of climate adaptation and environmental policy at the Brookings Institute, as well as holds the Maki Distinguished Faculty Associate position at the Desert Research Institute.  In her keynote address, Ms. Mulroy talked about the water management challenges facing California and the west.

Here’s what she had to say:

It’s now been a year since I stepped down from the Southern Nevada Water Authority, and over the last year, I’ve been able to get more involved in looking at water from a global perspective; I am now on the World Economic Forum and on the Global Agenda Council for Water. In January in Valdos, the World Economic Forum declared water the single biggest risk facing mankind and human society in the next ten years. It doesn’t matter whether you live in a very wet area, or you live in a very dry area. It is the single biggest risk factor.

Pat Mulroy 1Now those of us who have been in the water business for some time have often groused how water is the forgotten element – how we talk about power, we talk about technology, we talk about social institutions, and we never have a conversation about that one element without which none of us can exist. It now has been catapulted to the top of the list globally.

Only 20% of the world’s population has a reliable 24/7 water supply. When you put it in that context, the reality that we’ve been living in where we enjoy 24/7 reliable water looks very different. We are a tiny percentage of the world’s population.

In looking at our reality and what we are facing right now, we’re walking into the perfect storm. I’ve had any number of conversations, last night and this morning, trying to find out what’s changed.


Let’s be very honest. Nothing has changed. We are still locked in the same battles we were locked in a year ago, two years ago. In the meantime, conditions have gotten worse. Every single one of us is responsible. Every single one of us could have done more. Every single one of us could have let go of our innate dislike for certain regions and our innate dislike for certain mindsets.

We are very, very good at saying no. We are very, very good at blocking. Anybody can stop anything. What we can’t do or can’t seem to do is find a structure within which to say yes. You will never have enough science, you will never have enough data, but at some point, something has to change.

Last year was bad. The Sierras were hit, the Colorado was hit, and Lake Mead plummeted. Metropolitan had to draw significant amounts out of Lake Mead, despite the fact that the reservoir was already going to plummet. The Colorado River community understood.

Hoover Dam
Lake Mead and Hoover Dam, February 2015, by John Fleck

This year, it’s going to be worse. Whatever storage was in Southern California has been exhausted or at least severely diminished and Lake Mead’s going down again. Yes, we have snow. Right now it sits at around 90% of normal in the Colorado River basin; but 90% is not 100% and normal is getting redefined every single day. So it is within our reach now to achieve that magic goal of breaking the shortage elevation in Lake Mead.

Many here in California still don’t see the connection. I’ve been up and down the Colorado River last year, speaking several times in Colorado, in New Mexico, in Arizona, and I have one message. In order to fix the larger problem facing the entire region, California has to resolve the Bay Delta issue. The two are interconnected. Everyone up and down the Colorado is watching what California’s doing in the Bay Delta, because what happens in the Delta matters in Denver.

There are now experiments and they are demonstration projects; as conditions keep getting worse, we’re still only demonstrating that there might be some rationale to taking measures before you have a crisis in order to avoid a crisis. The partnership of Metropolitan, CAP, SNWA, and Denver are showing that you can through active conservation, in both the ag and the urban sectors, leave enough water behind in Powell and in Mead to help stem and avoid Mead going below that critical elevation of 1075’.

Pat Mulroy 3Because guess what happens if we break it. If we break it, then there is no water out of Lake Mead for Met to take to buffet against a potential year five of drought in the Sierras. And when that happens, not one of us can put the cloak of righteousness on. Every one of us will be held accountable, because quite honestly, we will have failed. We will have failed. We will have been so dogmatic in saying, no, No, NO, that people are going to suffer.

Last year, the Central Valley was a wakeup call, but we’re not awake yet. It’s the same soap opera over and over and over again, the record’s broken. Is California really going to exit from the global food chain? Does California really believe that exiting the global food chain is not going to have consequences in other parts of the world? It is. You can’t add 2 billion people to this planet and not think about global food supply. We don’t eat local. We eat globally. What’s our favorite dish? Ahi tuna. Well it certainly isn’t in Mead.

I have to reiterate the connections again for those of you who have not heard me say it, because it doesn’t seem to want to sink in. From Denver, down all the way up to San Francisco, it’s one huge interconnected plumbing system. It’s inseverable. And everyone’s actions matter. We’re now facing the expiration of that much hailed Minute 319, where Mexico became a part of the solution on the Colorado. It expires in 2017. And yet we’re dancing around the merry-go-round while we try to find a pathway to solution on that score.

Grand Canyon from Shuttle
The Grand Canyon as seen from the Space Shuttle

When are we going to finally get it? How bad does it have to get? Mead is potentially hitting 1067 within 18 months. Game’s over. Now all of us have our in house lawyer who will put the pile of paper in front of us showing us how we have a great legal position. At the end of the day, it won’t matter. It really won’t matter.

There have been small improvements. Incrementally, you can see the glimmer of hope. Incrementally you can see that it is possible. Yes, the interim surplus guidelines were possible and were adopted and are saving Southern California today. The interim shortage guidelines were possible, became possible and are helping everyone in the basin. Minute 319 was possible, became possible, and has allowed Mexico to leave hundreds of thousands of acre-feet in Lake Mead behind the dam. All those little actions have mattered, so it’s not that we can’t see what we could do if we’re willing to take a risk. And we have a framework in which ongoing dialogue can continue. We’ll never have all the answers, all at once.

But the Colorado River community is getting very nervous about what’s going on in California, and you are an integral part of the Colorado River community. Yet you don’t see it, unless you go boating at Lake Havasu or unless you come to Southern Nevada, or go to one of the other facilities on the Colorado River where you actually live in the area that is bordered by the Colorado River. You don’t see it.

Colorado River Aqueduct by Hayfield Feb 2012 #1
The Colorado River Aqueduct

But if you’re sitting in Southern California, you’re drinking that water. And it is distant and it is far, but it is a watershed that is just as much in stress as the Bay Delta is. And it is far more complex politically because of multiple states, multiple countries, and multiple jurisdictions in many ways than the Bay Delta where the environmental issues probably more complex than on the Colorado River.

We are citizens of a single watershed. We created it. It’s a manmade watershed. It crosses the continental divide, it connects us to the Rio, it crosses over to the Wasatch Front, it goes into Central Arizona. And every one of us doesn’t have rights; we have responsibilities at this point. It is Southern Nevada’s responsibility to conserve. It is California’s responsibility to conserve.

The San Francisco Bay Delta

The biggest divide that we have to bridge here in the short term is between agricultural and urban users. Look at the missed opportunities. Close your eyes and imagine if certain measures had been put in place 10, 15 years ago, would today be a little less difficult to get through? If we maximize all the opportunities in storage facilities, all the opportunities in mutual conservation, all the opportunities around shared resources, would today be a little less difficult to get through?

Do we really believe in a world where droughts are going to be more frequent, more dramatic, more impactful, that we can live this continued cycle of going into draconian drought measures, when we’re confronted by it, then forget about it, heave a sigh of relief and go about our business as usual once there is a significant rain or snow event only to face it again and again and again.

At 10:00 this morning, Governor Brown will announce this year’s $1 billion drought response. The Western Governors are in the midst of a lengthy drought dialog, but what we’re not talking about is avoiding it or mitigating it to where it becomes survivable because it will be a part of our reality.

Colorado River Basin Map
The Colorado River Basin touches seven states, from Wyoming to California.

Looking at the Colorado River basin, I want to give a shout out to IID for their apportionment plan; I think that is an enormous step in the right direction. I never thought I’d see the day it’d happen. I have to say CAP’s agreement with the Yuma area is going to go a long way, and when you really think about what’s happening, the urban areas are buying water and they are putting it in Lake Mead with no one’s name on it. Think about the concept. You protect the system in order to avoid it going into shortages. Not parochially, not to benefit yourself alone, but to benefit the larger system.

The Colorado River system, the California system, we’re in the process of getting our house in order, and until we get our house in order, we can’t have that next necessary conversation which is how are we going to augment the supplies.

There isn’t enough water even when you push conservation to its max. People don’t like to think that conservation has a wall that you’re going to hit, but you’re going to hit it and you will have no wiggle room left. Where do we augment from? Unfortunately, Secretary Salazar dismissed that whole portion of the Colorado River basin study and didn’t want to talk about it. I’ve had any number of conversations with conservationists who say the time is not right; if you start having a conversation about augmentation, then the pressure will be off on conservation.

I beg to differ.

Flying above the Bay Delta

We don’t have the luxury of decades, because the one thing we’ve learned, I would hope, is that the effects of climate change are coming on us much faster than we expected. We knew the day would come, but those of us in the baby boomer generation, somewhere in our mind we thought it was not our problem, but it was going to affect the next generation. It was a 2050, 2060 problem. That’s not the way it’s playing out. This morning, on ABC News, this was the warmest year on record on the planet despite the deep freeze on the East Coast. But cumulatively, it was the warmest year on record.

Our world is changing. Everything is changing around us. Can we protect and mitigate for the species? Can we get along with one another long enough to help mitigate against environmental impacts? Because just saying ‘no’ won’t do it. Just saying ‘no’ won’t solve the problem. As bleak as this all looks, I’ve seen the opportunities that can be created when people finally say, ‘It’s time.’ It’s time to really create processes where we can have ongoing dialog and make on the ground decisions as things change. Agreements can’t be in perpetuity anymore, because we don’t know what perpetuity looks like. But can we put processes in place that allow us to adapt as we have to.

Minute 321, 322, whatever it ends up being, has to be signed. And the message from the Colorado River community to the Bay Delta community is you’ve got to find a solution. You have got to find an answer. I remember vividly when the QSA battles were raging in California. It was ludicrous. Jim Lockhead and I spent more time in Sacramento in the Governor’s office on the QSA then we did on the Colorado River. It was foundational.

Each of us comes at it from a different perspective, and no one’s perspective is any more or any less valuable than anybody else’s. But at some point, those perspectives have to come together to a common action. It isn’t easy, it isn’t pretty, but it is absolutely essential, unless each and every one of us wants to stand on a street corners and say, yeah, we screwed up, we couldn’t get past ourselves.

We’re running out of time.   Our story of our larger water collective, the one question we have to ask ourselves, are we going to be telling the story of lost opportunities or are we going to be a beacon of hope to other parts of the world that struggle from similar juggernauts to say look it can be done, and here’s a blueprint on how to do it. That decision rests with each and every one of us in this room. Do you want to be the creator of a new opportunity and a beacon of hope into the future, into an unknown, dark tunnel that we don’t know what’s coming at us, or do you want to sit one day, and say we missed this opportunity, we missed that opportunity, and we become the story of lost opportunities.

Thank you.

The floor was then opened up for audience questions

Question: You mentioned that you think the biggest divide that we face is between urban and agricultural water users, and I was really struck by the fact, particularly since you’re referring to the challenges we have here in the Bay-Delta system, that you didn’t include the environment. I was hoping you would explore that a little bit …

I guess where I disagree with you fundamentally is that there is a conflict between urban and the environment, and ag and the environment. We don’t live in a vacuum. The environment is embedded in both. And it’s a mutual responsibility. So I don’t see it.

The last thing we need is a confrontation between the human part of the environment and the other parts of the environment, because only a halfwit would think they could survive in the absence of having a healthy ecosystem around them, so it is how the environment is going to change. Climate change is going to change the environment, whether we like it or not.

There was a story about sea lions that are all of a sudden dying on the California beaches. The sea lion pups, because the waters are too warm, their natural food sources are gone, it was all over the national news. The environment is changing. How do we mutually mitigate against some of these changes? What can we do to protect that ecosystem that we are an integral part of?

However, the more we make it an either-or, it is either the environment or the human, the more we set up an opportunity for failure. I have said to my environmental friends, time and time again, do not unleash the human survival spirit. Humans act irrationally when the human survival spirit is invoked. It’s a natural reaction on the part of the human. Survival of the fittest, and I would hope that we would be smarter than that at this juncture.

Question: You talked a lot about conservation, and last year, Governor Brown said that we need to reduce urban water use 20%, and the response of the state was pretty dismal. Can you contrast with that with where you are in Southern Nevada with conservation? And whether we just don’t get it here? An observation on why we can’t achieve more than a single digit percentage of conservation during a crisis.

My guess is that you will probably do far better this year. [laughter]

The way we rolled it out in Southern Nevada is that the water authority put the blueprint together but every single local jurisdiction had to bring it to life. It is at that local level, where the rubber meets the road, where the land use plans are approved, where the landscaping plans that are approved, it’s at that level that it comes to life.

I think LA’s water resource plan which says for the next 25 years it all comes from reuse and from conservation, any new resources, is laudable. That kind of action at the local level will make it happen, but I think as the supplies get tighter and tighter and tighter in California, you’ll start seeing double digit accomplishments this year.

The one word of advice, and I hate giving California advice, is don’t make it temporary actions. That was our strategy going in in Nevada. Never miss an opportunity of a good crisis – use it! Because it rattles everybody. Awareness. And so we deliberately said that we’re not going to simply do a temporary fix. We’re going to pay our customers to take their grass out and then we put a lien on their property – you can’t put it back in again. Once people realized that their world wasn’t going to collapse because they lost their patch of grass in the front of the house, things changed. And now it’s the norm, there’s this tipping point that happens.

Question: Your presentation largely focused on surface water. Of course, the predictable question is what about groundwater, and I invite you to address not only here in our troubled state, but throughout the West. …

Nevada has the strictest groundwater law in the United States. Groundwater and surface water are connected. The groundwater basins provide an opportunity. They are great storage reservoirs; we need to use them as such. Not everybody has the geology to be able to do it, and that’s where the strategic partnerships become invaluable. Just like we are paying Arizona to store their unused water in their groundwater basins for our future use.

There are portions of the Ogallala, and I was in Kansas at least a couple of times last year, that have 20 years left. And while the Ogallala is struggling, we still in flood events on the Mississippi, flood farmers fields to get rid of it rather than recharge the Ogallala with it. We need to become proactive in managing those groundwater basins. They are opportunities. Letting a groundwater basin go dry is a huge missed opportunity. It is a reservoir you don’t have to build with concrete. But you have to have the partnerships, you have to have the relationships, you have to know where your risks and where your opportunities are.

Question: From the Bay Delta, your house looks a lot cleaner, and I would just ask specifically, do you have advice for California to get their house in order? From the outside looking in, what is that first step?

From the outside looking in and speaking probably more ignorance than knowledge since I haven’t been in the weeds of it, the science is never going to be complete, because it changes constantly. And everyone is worried if X, Y, or Z action happens, that there will be X, Y, or Z consequence, so isn’t the solution to put in a process and create that table where you can adapt as these conditions change in order to avoid those unwanted consequences?

It’s not about the perfect solution; it’s about the iterative process, so you can continue to work them as they change. That’s what is important, because there are going to be so many changes in the climate and in the weather patterns and in how that affects those species, there isn’t one blueprint you can adopt right now that’s going to address all of that.

But how do we create that table where we can have, on a year to year basis, make the decisions that need to be made. That only X amount of water comes to Southern California, that X amount has to stay in the Delta, that this urban supplier in the north is experiencing this issue. You can get there, but not by looking for that perfect blueprint. It doesn’t exist.

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