Podcast: Former water czar talks politics, the Colorado, and resilience

June 14, 2016

Pat Mulroy has been given a few nicknames during her career. Some impressive and some unsavory, but each a testament to the power and influence she’s held as a woman and leader in the water world. None of those names faze her.

Once dubbed “water czar who transformed Colorado River politics,” Mulroy served as the general manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority and head of the Las Vegas Valley Water District.

She was charged with the daunting task of budgeting water for a city in the middle of the desert and navigating some of the worst droughts to threaten the Colorado River.

Now a senior fellow at the Brooking Institute, she uses her years of experience in domestic water management to make a difference globally. Mulroy collaborates with Brookings scholars in Washington, D.C., and the overseas centers in Doha, New Delhi and Beijing to improve and modernize water policy.

In a 2015 article, ProPublica once wrote that Mulroy had “a rare willingness to speak truth about the water challenges hammering the Western states.”

I’d have to agree. Mulroy is dogged, insightful and honest about how the nation should better manage water.

A few pieces of our conversation below. Listen to the full talk above.




Joe: You’ve said that we identify ourselves as citizens of a nation, a state, a city, but we don’t really identify ourselves as citizens of a watershed. As our water issues become more prolonged, do you see that changing over time?

I hope so. Especially on rivers like Colorado River, it’s going to be very difficult to forge a pathway forward unless a larger sense of community and interconnection is created.

Joe: Talk a little about birthright—water as a birthright, water as a human right? I know you have a bit of a response to that.

I think there is a basic human right to water. The question is: What kind of water, and delivered how? I have often said “Yes. you have a basic human right to water.” But what you don’t have a basic human right to is multi-hundred millions of dollars of infrastructure and treatment facilities that bring you that water free of charge. You as a user of the system, just as you have a right to water, also have a responsibility. And that responsibility is to pay the costs of what it takes to bring that water to your tap.

Joe: There’s a lot of talk now about resilient cities, how they’re built, how they should be redesigned, and whatnot. From a water perspective, what do you see as the top one or two things that cities need and have to do to ensure themselves a water resilient future?

We love the “one size fits all” approach in this country. The factors that have to come into play in a Las Vegas, a Phoenix, and Los Angeles in order to create resiliency are very different from the factors that have to come into play in Philadelphia, and Boston, and Washington and New York. How those climates are changing is absolutely going to affect what goes into that resiliency bucket.

Joe:  If you were the confidant advisor to Bugsy Siegel in 1946 and he was looking at Las Vegas to set up the Flamingo or Seattle, what would you have told him?

I get asked that question all the time. Everybody comes at it a different way. Essentially, your question is: Should there be a city in the desert?

There are cities in deserts all over the planet. And the resort industry is probably is the most compatible industry for the water limitations we have. They afford us the ability to reuse almost 90% of our wastewater. Anything that hits the sewer system gets reused. So, with that having been said, you want an industry whose use is mostly inside and not so much outside. It makes it easy to develop a resource plan when you have that and the ability, because of the way you organized locally, to be able to take full advantage of that.

Joe: In your life at Southern Nevada Water Authority, there were some tough moments. Are there any that stand out? Where you go, “That was a hard one. That was a crucible moment for me, professionally and personally.”

Oh my gosh. Yes. And that was in 2002, when the precipitation in the Colorado River reached an all time low and the reservoirs were plummeting. I will never forget the morning when my deputy, who was over engineering and operations and resource planning, came in and said, “We’ve got problems.”


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