This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: When Pat Mulroy, the general manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, presented a resource plan to her board in 2000, it showed a half century of clear sailing ahead.
Then Mother Nature intervened.
“We went from having a reliable 50-year water supply to having absolutely nothing within two short years,” recalled Mulroy. “Resources that all the modeling of the 1990s done by the Interior Department said were absolutely reliable and had virtually zero probability of drought disappeared before our eyes. We had to make some significant course corrections both locally and regionally and we had to weather through what no one ever thought was going to happen.”
How Nevada managed to do that will be the centerpiece of Mulroy’s remarks at the University of Missouri-St. Louis on Nov. 7, where the authority’s experiences will be the centerpiece of a panel discussion entitled “Facing the Unthinkable: Water Management Strategies.” The colloquium is part of the Hellen and Will Carpenter Series on Contemporary Issues in American Society.
Panelist David Wilson, senior manager of environment and community planning for the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, said the event is an important one that examines a topic few think about regularly, but which has could have a sharp impact on lives and livelihoods.
“Generally speaking, we in St. Louis think of water as something we have plenty of,” he said. “We have abundant water and as a result, we are actually in a very good position nationally, even globally, to develop both healthy communities and good quality industry that relies on water.”
In an age of climate change, that’s never been truer. Wilson said recent droughts in the area have shown the effect water levels can have.
While it didn’t threaten our drinking water supplies, "it did threaten some of the transportation elements that rely on our rivers,” he said. “It also brought home that it is hard to predict what the future might look like when it comes to so-called normal weather. Therefore, it only makes sense to plan for contingencies where water supply may be reduced.”
For Mulroy, those contingencies became a reality. Heavily dependent on snowmelt water from the Rockies, the Colorado River supplying the Las Vegas area fell to a trickle with only about a quarter of the normal moisture flowing down from the mountains.
“It was a reality check for all of us,” she recalled.
That reality check affected seven states and two nations, which had to work together to find innovative solutions to the problem.
“It has changed the way we manage the system collectively as a state in partnership with the federal government,” she said. “It has also brought the states closer together rather than causing more distance because we’ve realized that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We had to work together or we were all going to crash.”
The result affected everything from treaties with Mexico to agreements among states to establish water “banks” to a billion-dollar project to deal with Lake Mead’s sinking water level.
However, the impact went beyond governmental action. Average citizens pitched in as well. Residents were even encouraged to get rid of their lawns in favor of natural desert landscaping. Almost $200 million has been rebated to individuals under the sod removal program. Those efforts have paid off.
“We’ve gotten our water footprint down to 75 gallons per person per day on a residential basis,” said Mulroy. “The community really stepped up to the plate.”
She said that St. Louis may have different issues to worry about than her region, which has been in a worsening drought for more than a decade. At the confluence of two major rivers, flooding is more of a concern for Missourians.
Still, there are lessons to be learned.
“There are some opportunities here to begin to look at the whole picture of water resource management more holistically and to start reaching out and creating strategic partnerships with neighboring communities, neighboring states,” she said.
Mulroy said that continuing changes in the weather will create challenges for everyone, whether in dealing with flooding in St. Louis, droughts in Las Vegas or superstorms in New York.
“We are walking into an era of enormous change climatically, socially, economically,” she said. “It’s going to force us to do more with less and look at how we can provide the greatest value to our customers and stakeholders.”
She doesn’t think complacency is an option.
“We in this country have had the luxury of seemingly abundant water supplies,” she said. “When you look at the data, which suggests that by the year 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population is going to be living in cities, you have to start thinking about how that translates into water use. At minimum, it will be a very expensive proposition for utilities to keep up with all kinds of demand at current consumption rates. I’m not sure the public wants to pay those prices.”
They are also going to have to pay for maintenance on water and sewer systems that often date back to the 19th century.
“We’ve allowed the infrastructure in this country to decay, not just on the transportation side but on the water side as well,” she noted.
Fixing that infrasturture may require a mental shift for the public. That’s what had to happen along the Colorado River when the water ran out.
“There have been some significant cultural, community, organizational and attitudinal changes within the community, amongst the states and internationally because we were facing a catastrophe,” she said. “There is no other way to describe it.”