Rock Star

Posted by on Oct 12, 2012

“Let me tell you a story about the Colorado River…”

The speaker is only a few minutes into her keynote address. From my seat at the back of the grand ballroom, I can barely see her diminutive frame on the dais. I’m sitting on a stray banquet chair between two elaborate exhibits for water purifiers and intelligent faucets. I’m pouting.

I’d been unable to wrangle a conversation from the conference planners I’d met down the hall. They’d gracefully ducked my efforts to engage them, then shuffled me to the ballroom to hear their luncheon speaker. Passing the elevators, I thought better of leaving. I had nothing to lose by listening for a few minutes, even though I couldn’t imagine what could hold my interest at the World Water Summit.

Then she said “story.”

Her name is Pat Mulroy.  She’s the General Manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District and Southern Nevada Water Authority, entities that oversee, treat and deliver water to more than two million Nevada residents and 40 million annual visitors.

“… the Colorado River runs through seven states, starting with Wyoming all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. This one river is the artery for all of the southwest…”

Pat had been introduced to this audience as a “rock star in the water world.”  I look around the ballroom and crinkle my brow, an involuntary response when my brain is challenged to consider the interior of a new world. Whether its guidance counselors, line dancers, contractors, chefs, funeral directors, renaissance fair gypsies, socialites or water execs, every world has its own culture, and every culture gets a rock star.

“…we use more water per capita than anyone else in the world. As a nation, we do this because we can. We take for granted that when we turn on the faucet, fresh, clean water will pour out. It is difficult trying to tell people that water will not always be there…”

There are nearly 500 business suits in the ballroom, sitting in rapt attention.  Pat speaks with fire and authority, facts and context. She never looks down to notes or stumbles over her words. She is an anomaly in the industry. First, she’s a woman. Second, she didn’t arrive at the post with the typical background in science or law. Rather, she holds a degree in German literature. When she assumed the position, the establishment was caught unawares with her networking finesse, strategic grit and wherewithal for a good fight.

“…in the west, property ownership has no relation to water rights. You can’t just dig a well on your land and tap into a water source; you have to apply for water rights. The discussions around water in our region are, naturally, contentious…”

This watershed runs through through farms and communities of Nevada,Arizona,Utah,Colorado,New Mexico,Wyoming and California. In fact, half of the water supply of southern California depends on water from the Colorado River. Pat’s story chronicled the events, threats and challenges that led to a landmark, 1922 treaty over the seven states’ access and delivery of Colorado River water. Today, this river region provides 20% of the nation’s fruit and vegetables and 27% of the country’s GDP.

“…we’ve learned through hard knocks that you can’t poke at any point of this system without causing a domino effect…”

In 1990, Pat says that experts and authorities in all of these states agreed that they were running out of water. Lake Meade, one of the two reservoirs funneling water through the region has dropped to a water level that almost reaches its lowest mark since 1956.  Falling water levels of the other primary reservoir, the Hoover Dam, threaten the electricity source as well as water for three states.  Pat explained how the Upper Basin and Lower Basin communities of Nevada decided to band together to develop new partnerships and solutions.

“…it was unheard of in Western water. We threw away our water rights. We threw away proprietary plumbing. We pooled our resources. We were able to speak as one Nevada, one voice. It was not a pleasant experience for the other states…”

Pat, who also has experience as a lobbyist, described the tension and challenge of renegotiating Nevada’s role in the Colorado Compact which, previously, favored the more agricultural states. Now, 20 years after taking the post, Pat is heralded across the nation as a key player in reshaping the industry’s approach to water politics and conservation. The states brokered creative partnerships for storing, channeling and leveraging Colorado River resources.  In her own district,Las Vegas went from a city with the highest level of consumption to becoming a national model for water conservation.

“…we are a dry community, so most of our water savings will happen outdoors. I’ve spent a lot of time talking with home owners associations and, once everyone stopped worrying about whether their trees were going to die, we were able to make progress.  One thing I learned, however, is that nothing will interfere with senior citizens and their car washing schedules…”

Although the car washing “car pools” were a bust, as well as the ban on water fountains, the Southern Nevada Water Authority successfully implemented a residential watering schedule and distributed $200 million in rebates to customers who removed grass and replaced landscaping with desert plants instead.

“…we have people who move here from Chicago and Florida, but Kentucky bluegrass is not indigenous to the Mojave desert. Oh, let me reassure you, my Midwestern friends, that doesn’t mean rocks, a cactus and a dry coyote skull. There are plenty of beautiful plants and flowers on the desert landscape…”

Pat and her communities engaged in more than conservation strategies; they changed their culture. As a result, 94% of the water in southern Nevada is recycled and the region reduced its water use by one third in less than six years.  Today, they’re even able to “loan” water to California.

“…the drought we’ve been experiencing for the past 12 years will have astronomical economic, social and geological consequences if we do not continue to explore partnerships and aggressive solutions. There cannot be winners and losers. There will only be losers…”

I sense that she is nearing the end of her presentation. I look up to scan the room for the first time since she’d started speaking. I’ve been scribbling furiously in my notebook, too fascinated by her every word to observe the attendees.  These are executives and researchers and policy makers gathered from all over the world to discuss the “future of water,” a proposition that, sadly, few pedestrians like me will often think about.

“…a water conversation is the most difficult to engage with the public, but it’s a conversation whose time has come. We showed that it can be done.”

Now, I watch the audience.  They are unified and focused.  There is no side chatter, no early exits.  She is speaking their gospel.  This is their world and it is clear –even to an outsider like me– Pat Mulroy is a Rock Star in it.

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