Sunday, Aug. 7, 2011 | 2 a.m.
In August, Brian Greenspun turns over his Where I Stand column to guest writers. Today’s columnist is Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
This past winter was finally a good one for the Colorado River. Healthy snowfall in the Rocky Mountains will allow Lake Mead to partially recover; at the end of this water year, it will once again be half full. This, along with the severe slowdown in our economy, have made some in our community question why we would still be pursuing the necessary permitting to secure the use of unused, renewable groundwater in five remote east-central Nevada valleys.
First and foremost, it is crucial to protect the health and safety of every resident of Southern Nevada. The past 11 years have taught us that relying on one supply source for almost 2 million people is extremely dangerous. Despite all the dams that have been built and the agreements that have been put in place, weather patterns that bring extended periods of severe drought are a reality. As the agency whose responsibility it is to guarantee a reliable water supply, we have to anticipate these droughts in our planning.
If some feel that a downturn in the economy lessens the need for the project, the opposite is actually true. Investors closely examine the water resources of Southern Nevada when evaluating whether to put money into our economy. Metropolitan Las Vegas accounts for roughly two-thirds of the state’s economic output.
Recent economic analyses indicate that if investors and the financial markets lose confidence in the long-term viability of Southern Nevada’s water supply, we could see a 10 percent decline in economic activity — a decline that represents 80,000 lost jobs. So it is no surprise that investors ask continually how we intend to serve the community if Lake Mead goes into distress. Maintaining confidence in future water availability, even in the most severe drought circumstances, is crucial to the community, particularly as we try to dig out from the recession.
The only thing that provides that needed security is a supply that is not connected to the Colorado River. Some have suggested ocean desalting — unfortunately, we do not live next to an ocean, and being able to exchange ocean water for Colorado River water when there is little if any of that water left will be impossible. Any desalting facilities that can be built by our neighbor California will have to protect the 20 million inhabitants of Southern California, which will be as affected by shortages as we will be.
Since the unused groundwater to the north of us is the only real alternative we have to secure Southern Nevada, the Water Authority board of directors decided to continue to pursue permitting for the project so that if the worst happens in the short term, we can begin design and construction. We are in the final stages of the permitting process.
In the fall, the Southern Nevada Water Authority will once again be going to a hearing before the state engineer for the water rights, to rectify the procedural deficiency the Supreme Court used to revoke our water rights. Also, after seven years, the Bureau of Land Management has released a draft environmental impact statement on the proposed project that is necessary to acquire right of way over federally controlled land. Federal law requires extraordinary rigor in evaluating the impacts.
For example, it requires that a model be developed in which the proposed wells are pumped 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for 200 years. It does not allow for any management or protections to be put into the model run even if, as in the case of this project, they exist in the form of signed agreements with four federal resource agencies that will have a say in how much water can be taken from any one point in any given year.
The Water Authority cannot and will not be allowed to inflict the environmental devastation that the opponents are predicting. Our only objective is to responsibly develop this unused water to secure the future existence of Southern Nevada while protecting the environment of our state.
Southern Nevada can no longer rely on Lake Mead for 90 percent of its water supply. Just like many cities in this country, we have to diversify where our water comes from. Cities such as San Francisco, Denver, Salt Lake City, San Diego, Los Angeles, Albuquerque, Phoenix, Tucson and even New York would not exist as they do today had they not secured their water supply by bringing water in from outside their areas. Reno, Carson City, Virginia City and even Wendover rely on interbasin transfers.
Although Southern Nevada is suffering through the consequences of the national recession, it can and will recover — but only if businesses and a flourishing tourist trade can rely on a secure water supply, no matter how dire drought conditions become. Water security is not a luxury — it is an absolute necessity in this, America’s driest city.