Las Vegas Sun

September 24, 2017

Currently: 60° — Complete forecast

Water expert discusses actions Southern Nevada has taken and what we should plan for

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Steve Marcus

A view of the white “bathtub” ring around Lake Mead indicates the drop in water level through the years from the lake’s high point.

Click to enlarge photo

Pat Mulroy

Lake Mead’s elevation is just 1,087 feet above sea level and dropping steadily. Another 12 feet and the most severe drought-protection program the Southwest has ever seen will be triggered.

If and when Lake Mead hits 1,075 feet, the government will declare a federal water shortage for the seven states that draw water from the Colorado River, forcing Nevada and the others to limit water use.

Worse, a report by climate scientists and NASA predicts the Southwest will be in a decades-long drought by midcentury — the worst in 1,000 years. Despite the sobering predictions, former Las Vegas water czar Pat Mulroy is confident life will go on in the West.

How worried should we be about the current drought?

The situation is serious, but it was not unexpected. Because of the way Lake Powell (on the Utah/Arizona border) feeds into Lake Mead, there’s a lot more predictability and knowledge of what’s going to happen a year ahead, before you actually see the levels drop in Lake Mead.

The good thing for Southern Nevada is we conserved early, so we have lots of cushion. On paper, we will take a shortage, but in real terms, we won’t be affected by it.

Will things get worse? What about the report predicting the worst drought since the Middle Ages?

Let’s put these studies into context: Even the scientists will tell you those predictions aren’t cast in concrete. They are on the sphere of possibility and need to be taken into consideration. We need to buffer against it. We need to plan for it now. But is it absolute that this is going to happen? We don’t know that. Nobody knows that.

So how do you convince people to conserve when the future is so uncertain?

You have to get closer to the reality glaring them in the face. When there’s still water around, those probabilities seem remote and far. And as this drought deepens, people start getting concerned, because the questions start changing. They aren’t, “Can you afford to do these things?” The question becomes, “Can you afford not to do these things?”

You told National Geographic in 2008 you consider the turn of the century the defining moment when the New West began, when the impact of global warming fell on us overnight. What did you mean by that?

We had come out of essentially a century that was exceedingly wet. What climate scientists now are saying is we’re not going to have that predictable wet cycle. Droughts we used to think were only two, three, four, five years long could be 30 or 40 years. It’s the magnitude and the rate of change that was completely unexpected.

I think we need to be very honest with ourselves that the whole basin — not just Las Vegas — is facing a much drier future. If that’s the case, what are the mosaic pieces we have to put in place now in order for 40 million people to survive in this region? There’s no one silver bullet.

Is there a point where the resources we have can’t sustain the West’s growth?

This isn’t a western growth issue. It’s a global growth issue. It’s raw human numbers.

So what do you do? Put a moat around Las Vegas and not let anybody cross it? Come on, let’s get real. Do we get to decide who gets to have children and who doesn’t? These become ridiculous questions.

What’s the tipping point when we should panic? Or move to the coast?

I don’t think you ever panic. I don’t think you ever move to the coast. Because there are always solutions. What becomes an inhibitor is people’s willingness to implement the solutions.

And which coast are you moving to? Southern California is going to be hit as badly as Nevada.

All said, you seem optimistic we’ll manage.

Communities can work together. Look at what the basin states have been able to accomplish. Twenty years ago, those communities couldn’t have even talked to one another.

From the headwaters to the gulf, there is a larger ability and vitality being generated to be able to understand what lies ahead. So am I optimistic? Absolutely.

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