Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was very blunt.
Do it yourself, Reid told the 150 government, political and economic leaders at UNLV Tuesday morning, a who’s who of Southern Nevada. Get together with your counterparts in other states and agree on a plan to secure the economic future of the region, Reid advised.
Beyond the Sun
“This isn’t something that’s going to come from Washington,” he said, countering a prior reference to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s interstate highway program of the 1950s.
“We need you folks out here to develop something on your own. Don’t think we’re going to do this.”
Tuesday’s relatively freewheeling meeting was an opportunity to discuss how to use a comprehensive Brookings Institution report released in July as a springboard. The discussion focused mainly on Southern Nevada’s energy, water and transportation needs and how we share many of those needs with neighboring states.
The think tank’s report outlined challenges facing “the southern Intermountain West” — Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico. Brookings concluded that the five states are poised to become the new American heartland, but they need to work together.
“The West is way behind the times,” Reid agreed.
Look at the Great Lakes region for an example of how it can be done, he told the audience. Those states wanted to prevent other countries from taking water from the lakes, so the governors got together, assembled a plan then successfully lobbied individual members to prevent water from being shipped off.
Florida provides another example, Reid added. That state keeps a building in the nation’s capital for use by Floridians when they are there to work on behalf of the state.
But, Reid cautioned, “the political operation didn’t come cheap. If people think it’s going to be easy, it’s not.”
And the Brookings report was not drafted as an answer to current economic problems. It was more a look to a future being shaped by the massive influx of new residents the region has seen in recent years — a trend that will resume as soon as the economy bounces back, experts said.
Much of the report focused on the “megametro” areas of the five states, including the greater Las Vegas area, saying they are growing so much that Congress will no longer be able to ignore their needs.
“We’re chasing the new politics,” said Mark Muro, policy director in Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program. “We’re not just intellectuals at Brookings, we’re chasing the new calculus.”
Population growth, he noted, will give the region eight more electoral votes by 2030. “It’s going to have a national impact.”
A study that includes Las Vegas is important in other ways, especially when what happens here tends to turn up in so many other parts of the country.
“This is the place that invents strange and exotic new urban forms that are viewed with bemusement by the rest of the country — before they’re later adopted there,” Muro said, standing before a large picture of a Las Vegas suburb neatly abutting a sagebrush-dotted desert.
And although Las Vegas’ economy is hurting right now, and growth has dropped to a rate lower than it has seen in many years, the current decline is a “bump in the road,” contended Robert Lang, a Brookings senior fellow and author of “Boomburbs: The Rise of America’s Accidental Cities.”
“It will come back. It’ll be bigger than it is now,” Lang told the audience at the UNLV Foundation Building. “It’s always difficult to see the next engine of growth.”
With that in mind, Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, asked the audience to imagine Lake Mead, the reservoir whose water keeps Las Vegas alive, as little more than a mud puddle.
In February, Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California-San Diego, said there is a 50 percent chance Lake Mead will dry by 2021 because of climate change and ongoing use. By 2017, the lake could be too low for Hoover Dam to produce electricity.
So, Mulroy said, she is going to make the case “whenever and wherever I can” that the key to the region’s water future doesn’t lie with desalination or a reworking of the Colorado River Compact, which spells out how much river water goes to each state.
The future lies in the billions of gallons of floodwater that frequently soak the Midwest.
Mulroy posited the idea that constructing reservoirs would prevent flooding and provide water to Southern Nevada and other parched parts of the nation.
Such a system could save some cropland and create more, which she argued will be needed to feed a country and world whose populations continue to grow.
“This is going to be difficult politically to have that dialogue, but I cannot help thinking there’s a possibility of a package that provides the needed flood protection and the drought protection to the far Southwest and West that is so desperately needed,” Mulroy said.
The region’s transportation needs, especially Las Vegas’, are also great. Passenger rail service to Las Vegas doesn’t exist; neither does an interstate highway linking Phoenix and Las Vegas.
Reid, however, blanched at the idea of pouring more billions of dollars, and tons of concrete, into more highways.
“Our highways are jam-packed and, frankly, studies have been done that adding more lanes is not the answer,” Reid said, adding that after the Ivanpah Airport, planned for southwest of Las Vegas, “we’re through” being able to build more big, expensive airports.
“The one leg we stay away from is rail,” he added. “I don’t want to beat up on John McCain — that will take place a week from today — but for 11 years he has fought Amtrak and it has really hurt.”
Las Vegas lost Amtrak service in 1997. The nearest station is in Kingman, Ariz., about 100 miles to the south.
A recent bill will help Amtrak, but “we need to spend billions to bring it up to snuff,” Reid said.
Even then, however, it will largely help only the East Coast because fewer Amtrak lines serve the West, Reid added.
“I love maglev,” he said, referring to magnetic levitation, a system for high-speed trains that has long been talked about as a way to connect Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
Jacob Snow, Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada general manager, said his vision for high-speed rail is shared by other Southwest transportation leaders. Now what’s needed, he said to Reid, is an “intermountain congressional caucus” to speed up the process.
But Reid rejected the idea.
“I gave up on caucuses,” he said. “I won’t be part of one coming out of the Senate.”
The difficulty of getting a caucus together was somewhat underscored by the failure of Nevada’s other U.S. senator, John Ensign, to show up for Tuesday’s forum.
At the end of the event, the discussion came back around to what Reid and the report said needed to be done: Unite leaders from the five Intermountain West states.
Brian Greenspun, a Brookings trustee and editor of the Las Vegas Sun, asked for a show of hands from those who felt “motivated” to do something toward creating the interstate group that both Reid and Brookings called for. About 100 hands went up.
“People need to walk out of here with a different mind-set,” said Rory Reid, Clark County Commission chairman. “And not think about what they need to do or what their organization needs to do, but who they can join with and who their partners can be.”
Terry Murphy, a longtime political consultant, said the entire tone of Tuesday’s conversations was one of “we can do this.”
“Thought was beginning to take shape,” she said. “We have to start somewhere, and if we don’t start planning together now, 10 years from now we will wish that we had.”