Great column on Pat Mulroy’s dreams of becoming the next William Mulholland. (Really. She loves the comparison.) One of the things that too many mainstream news organizations have omitted is the cost – not financial, although I think the credible estimates bring the pipeline cost to somewhere in excess of $10 billion – but environmental. I have worked as a reporter and now environmental advocate for decades, more than 10 years in Las Vegas. I have failed to meet a single independent scientist that does not believe there will be massive environmental impacts from the pump-and-pipe scheme.I was interested to see that Pierre Omidyar (founder of eBay and philoanthropist) uses over 17,000,000 gallons of water per year. (That's 53AF/year! Is he growing alfalfa?)
Mrs. Mulroy in January convinced the Water Authority board to ban residential graywater systems, probably the most promising way to increase water conservation and efficiency out there. It would also, of course, have saved massive amounts of power by making it unnecessary to pump water up from Lake Mead (or, God forbid, from the environmentally fragile Great Basin).
The extremely low cost of water is a huge problem and paradox for the Southwest. I served on the committee that set the existing rates (I was the only conservationist). I joined members of the general public and Peter Gleick, one of the world’s premier experts on water use and conservation, in arguing for an aggressively tiered pricing structure that would hit high-volume water users with much higher prices, therefore encouraging water conservation and smart water use.
While we have a tiered structure, it is very anemic and does little to really encourage water savings. It’s just too cheap to bother, especially for the very wealthy people who tend to be the highest water users. It may be interesting to note that during the discussions on water use, abuse and price, Las Vegas water officials insisted that there was no correlation between high-volume water use and income or wealth.
Also, the main concern expressed by water officials was not that there was a need to conserve water, but that people, when faced with higher prices, would indeed cut back water (and therefore agency income) excessively. In other words, there is a crisis, but it isn’t a water crisis. It is a crisis of political will, outmoded economics and greed.
Here is a file [680kb XLS] of the biggest water users in the metropolitan Las Vegas region. One will find some of the richest people in the region – indeed, the world – as well as our elected political leadership. I would additionally note that Mrs. Mulroy, the “Czarina” of the region’s water agency, and her husband use nearly 700,000 gallons annually. That is more than 10 times what my household uses.
And that, too, helps explain why the Southern Nevada Water Authority and affiliated water agencies do not like to charge high prices to high-volume water users.
On Mulholland, btw, read section 3.2.2 of my dissertation, where I point out his connivance in declaring a SoCal water shortage in 1922 (à la Chinatown) -- one year after he declared an abundance of water in the area. Mulholland's testimony was absolutely critical to the foundation of the Metropolitan Water District of SoCal, which was charged with building the Colorado River Aqueduct. The $220 million bond issue to fund the aqueduct (in 1931) was the biggest ever issued in SoCal. When built, the CRA delivered SO MUCH water to SoCal that it set off an orgy of expansion, annexation and sprawl that permanently redefined how people perceived and lived in SoCal.
Bottom Line: Beware of water managers who promise that "just a little more water" will fix our problems.