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End of the Line: Two Former Foes on the Death of the 'Water Grab'

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Courtesy

A scene from the 2017 Great Basin Water Tour, organized by opponents of the Southern Nevada Water Authority's pipeline project

On May 21, during an otherwise business-as-usual meeting, the Southern Nevada Water Authority board of directors voted to indefinitely defer its groundwater development project, which opponents had dubbed the “water grab.” 

The unanimous vote brought an end to more than three decades of bitter fighting between the SNWA and Great Basin Water Network, a scrappy coalition of concerned citizens, environmentalists, Indian tribes, and ranchers. They characterized the plan as greedy, heartless, and extravagant: It would tap into 200,000 acre-feet of water annually; move it 250 miles south, from its rural origins to the metropolis of Clark County; and cost an estimated $15.5 billion. In the process, they said, it would turn 200 square miles of cultural sites, farms and ranches, and public lands into a dust bowl. 

But the water authority hung onto to what its author, now-retired general manager Pat Mulroy, called the “in-state project,” insisting that it needed a plan B for precarious Colorado River water supplies. 

Mulroy retired at the end of 2013, and one of her counterparts at the Great Basin Water Network, Abby Johnson, has spent the last couple years training its first executive director (Kyle Roerink) to take over representing the organization from her and other founding members. Here, Mulroy and Johnson reflect on the conflict they’ve both been involved with since the beginning. Their interviews have been meshed into one “conversation,” and edited for length and clarity.

 

You’ve been fighting this battle for 30 years. Now that it’s over, how do you feel?

AJ: Yes, my son, whose name is Wheeler, was 1 when the fight started, and now he’s 32. 

I am elated and, amazingly, surprised that this has happened. I really didn’t expect that the Southern Nevada Water Authority would know when to hold them and know when to fold them. And the fact that they have chosen to withdraw their remaining water grab applications and get out of the stipulated agreement (on water rights in the Cave, Delamar, Dry Lake, and Spring valleys) and return the rights-of-way (to build infrastructure on federal land) back to Bureau of Land Management — those are huge steps, and I’m still pretty stunned that they did that.

This project has often been described as a “zombie,” because it keeps coming back from the dead. Are you sure this is the end of it?

AJ: That is a good question, because they still own the ranches in Spring Valley, just west of Great Basin National Park, and I don’t know what their plans are in holding onto those and the water rights associated with them. I watched the SNWA board meeting online, and (current general manager) Mr. (John) Enstminger said something about the portfolio and that it would be in the integrated resource management plan. “Indefinitely deferred” doesn’t mean “stopped.” A deferral isn’t an end. But with the actions that were then taken, it’s an end for quite a while.

 

Did you think the water authority's decision to shelve the pipeline project was a good one?

Pat Mulroy: Look, the water authority looked at its water portfolio. John is feeling comfortable that he can manage through shortages in the Colorado River, given the amount of water that we've stored over the last 25 years; we've entered into so many storage arrangements with different states that he thinks he can get through. And the low-level pumping station (at Lake Mead) obviously is going to be an enormous factor. So the water authority was in a position where it didn't have to build this project.

Nobody has ever had a deep, passionate desire to build this project. It has been the project of last resort, and it has been the project that — if it were to ever happen — the question would not have been, "Can you afford it?" The question would have been, "Can you afford not to?" So, I completely understand it. I've been in this position myself, back in 2000, and the project was set aside. So, I completely understand the factors that went into John's considerations and why he made the recommendations he did to the board. 

 

***

How long do you think it will be until the next urban water boss eyes the water in those valleys?

AJ: What we’ve learned from 31 years of fighting the water grab and participating at an intense level in state hearings and the BLM’s Environmental Impact Study process is, just because there’s water manifesting on the surface of a valley, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s easy or without harm to pump it to the point of exhaustion. And the SNWA project was so massive — as it had to be in order to make pumping that much water for an indefinite period of time pencil out — it was a boulder in a puddle in terms of impact. It might be possible to pump some water from a valley, but if you have to take it 250 miles away, is it worth it? We know that recharge for these large pumping projects can take 400 years. So, the insult to the aquifer lasts far longer than the project is likely to last. And, of course, the impacts on the environment and the communities that depend on it are devastating.

The other problem is that Lincoln County’s water rights are managed by the private company Vidler. And I don’t have any idea what their plans are.

 

Did you suspect at the outset that the project would turn out to be as controversial as it has been?

PM: Yes, I expected it to be controversial. This is a classic water confrontation in the United States. And, quite honestly, it's no different anywhere else in the world. It's urban versus rural. It's north versus south. I mean, it has all the ingredients of the typical regional confrontations around water. And look, this is no different: Go over into the state of California. The Bay Delta project, the state water project over there — carrying water hundreds of miles from the Sacramento Bay Delta down to Southern California — equally controversial. So, no, I was not surprised.

What gave you the idea for the project to begin with?

PM: We had retained, as our director of resources, the former head of the U.S. Geological Service, and he was responsible for water resources here in Nevada. The state was telling us that there would never be an additional drop of water for Southern Nevada coming from the Colorado River, and we didn't even need to think about that. When we were confronted with a situation that was absolutely untenable, it became quite logical. I mean, if you can't create some kind of partnership on the river, then you have no alternative but to look north for additional resources.

Then, in 2000, when we had successfully gotten around the state's original statement that we couldn't go to the river, and we had created partnerships with other states, I abandoned the in-state project. We were able to deliver a 50-year resource plan to the board with no northern water in it whatsoever. The in-state project was always a project of desperation. It was a project of, when you've got your back against the wall, and you've got nowhere else to go, what do you do? Because you can't conserve your way out of it, 100 percent.

What brought it back?

PM: We were very comfortable without that project until 2002, when the drought began in serious. Lake Powell crashed. Lake Mead was starting to crash. And we were once again confronted with the horrible reality that we would have no ability to deliver Colorado River water. And that's 90 percent of (Southern Nevada’s) supply. You have to remember, back then, those low-level pumps didn't exist. You couldn't go that deep. … 

So, there we were. We were in the middle of building the second intake into Lake Mead, but if the lake levels continued to drop, it was going to drop even below our second intake, and we were once again going to be confronted with the horrible reality that this community loses 90 percent of its water supply. 

 

***

There were times you expressed doubt about the project and times you were a fierce defender of it. What was the main factor in your stance?

PM: The ongoing drought. Absolutely. And let's put this inside a picture frame. So, the year is 2007, 2008. We're in the middle of the worse economic recession the state had seen in a very long time, and we had gaming and resort industry projects that had been built and used foreign financing. So, I spent the better part of 2007 and 2008 talking to investors in Dubai, Japan, China, Switzerland — all over the world — (telling them) that our water supply was going to be secure. 

The only way we could deliver a 50-year resource plan to the state of Nevada, which we had to do every single year, was to include the in-state project. Had we not, it would have had severe economic consequences here in Nevada, because all those banks and financial institutions that were seeing not just the recession that was global, but also the ugliest drought this river system had ever seen, they knew the community was 90 percent dependent on that river, and they were going to get very, very uncomfortable about the loans they had outstanding to places like City Center. So, yes, it was always driven by the drought. As of 2002, it was always driven by the drought.

 

What’s been a low point in this 31-year saga?

AJ: When we had our victory in court on the due process issues in 2010, that was a huge victory. Then SNWA filed all over again, another set of applications, and so we had to start all over again with a new protest process, a very costly protest process. Everyone who had protested before had to pay the state engineer again to protest again. It was very costly, and it was grueling — $56,000 in filing fees for 2,300 protests. … But it did turn out to be a great organizing tool to refresh the recollection of Nevadans who were concerned about water that this was still going on, that it seemed unfair, and that we were stepping up and going to keep fighting.

Were there moments when you thought about giving up?

AJ: What I and other stalwarts have brought to the fight is passion and a personal feeling that the project is an attack on the things we hold dearest: the Great Basin, the uniqueness of it, and the area of Eastern Nevada that’s been a target of it for so long. For us, giving up was never an option. We all felt the rightness of the fight, and strength and dedication. But the other part of that is, since we’re part of a network, if for some reason, we couldn’t do something or we had to step away, there was always someone who stepped up to fill the gap. We operated in a team fashion very effectively.

It’s also been an interesting, slightly magical process, in that all these determined individuals just kept on keeping on. The Bakers (ranchers in the Snake Valley town that bears their name) didn’t sell to SNWA, and Dean Baker (the family patriarch) had the inspirational idea to fabricate a giant bucket as a symbol of the water grab. 

 

***

You started getting concerned about climate change in the mid-2000s. Today, you’re a senior fellow for climate adaptation and environmental policy at UNLV. Has that awareness altered your view of urban growth at all?

PM: You know, everybody ends up at the urban growth question. And the reality is, you can't control growth. You don't own the land. The only city that I've seen that successfully curbed its growth is Boulder City, and that's because they own every square inch of land within the city boundaries and they only sell land as they want to become bigger. 

So, the notion that you're really going to clamp down on growth — yes, you can make it more expensive, but given what Southern Nevada’s connection charges already are, and now the economy's even worse because of the pandemic — but given myriad factors, I don't see that kind of clamping down happening here, where we're talking about diversifying our economy, becoming less dependent on the resort industry to where we're not quite as vulnerable as we are now. These are conflicting desires. And yes, in a wonderfully ideal world, you could bring up the drawbridge, shut the gates and say, no one else is moving in. It doesn't work that way.

 

Will you retire now?

AJ: I’m thinking about that. I’m still doing some community development consulting work. I am of a retirement age, so I’m kind of gradually tapering off, and certainly this stunning victory is helping me to taper off more, because there’s much less to do with a big win. But I’m thinking about what to do in retirement and how quickly to get into retirement, and like everything else, I still have my pandemic goggles on a bit — just keep doing what you’re doing and don’t rock the boat too much. 

What will happen to Great Basin Water Network?

AJ: We’re in the process of assessing that. It’s complicated a little bit by the pandemic because we can’t all drive to Baker and talk amongst ourselves for a day or two about priorities for the future. I do think that sustainable water use in the Great Basin is probably a direction we’ll look at going. I’m not exactly sure what that means, but I would envision taking some of what we’ve learned on this project and helping other communities and areas to build on our strengths and learn from our experience. And, of course, we’re still very concerned about changes that could be made to water law that would undermine the court cases that we have won over the years, so we’re still going to be watching the Legislature closely and taking our expertise there.

 

***

Have you spoken to Pat Mulroy since the decision?

AJ: No, I’ve never spoken to her. I’ve never met her.

Is there anything you want to say to her?

AJ: (long pause) No.

During the time when Ms. Mulroy was in charge, there was no dialogue between her and the people who were against the pipeline project. There was no negotiation, no interest in it on their part. There was no acknowledgement of our right to continue to exist. The project had a lack of respect for rural people and their ways of life. I did a lot of thinking about this over the past year or so, about how the project could have been redeemed from SNWA’s point of view, and the thing that is totally clear is that SNWA was not willing to respect the rural people or to share the power in any way. So, there was no off-switch on the project. No participation by people or governmental entities in how the water was controlled. That helped to crystallize the opposition and make us even stronger. 

 

People who opposed the project sometimes made it personal. They attacked you as an individual in addition to the water authority. Was that difficult for you?

PM: No, it's childish. I mean, come on. Why are you attacking the individual? You need a boogeyman, right? So, I guess I was as good a boogeyman as any. It didn't bother me. 

How has your experience with the pipeline influenced your current work?

PM: Actually, not at all. My current work is completely focused on the Colorado River, on how to stabilize a very vulnerable and volatile water supply. No, the project has had no bearing on anything that I've done. 

That's surprising.

PM: Why? Everybody had this vision that this was like my manifest destiny, which is crazy. Totally crazy. Never was. It was a project born of necessity, in the absence of an alternative.

Are you glad that people thinking this is your manifest destiny is over now?

PM: It was such a silly, silly assumption to begin with. I must have said it a hundred million times, that that was not what this was. But that would not have made good soundbites and good fodder to create the villain that they needed in this battle. So, yeah, I mean, it is what it is.

 

What would you like people to take away from this story?

AJ: One part of this victory that is kind of hidden is the tribal role, how the tribes were shut out of the hearings and how the Bureau of Indian Affairs gave up their protests on behalf of the tribes in 2006, and how they’ve managed to come back by getting legal representation and standing to defend the swamp cedars. I think that there’s this underlying theme and awareness these days of how much this land has always been the tribe’s and how much they have understood about the relationships between the land, water, earth, and environment. Part of this victory belongs to the tribes and to the tribal point of view, which was, it’s all one. It’s connected. You can’t take the water out and have Mother Earth be whole. This decision by SNWA to back off and by Judge Estes that precipitated it are vindications of the tribe’s strength and that view.

 

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