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Decades of wrangling over water rights might just be drops in the bucket compared to the disputes that could arise as the United States copes with a changing global climate.
A new book argues that cooperation and collaboration — along with conservation — are needed in developing effective water policies to cope with a warmer, dryer future.
“The Water Problem: Climate Change and Water Policy in the United States” discusses the challenges faced across the country — from rising sea levels in Florida to a shrinking Ogallala Aquifer to the competing demands on the Colorado River.
Pat Mulroy, former Southern Nevada Water Authority general manager and current fellow at Boyd Law School, edited the book, which includes essays from several water policy experts.
Mulroy said when most people talk about climate change they focus on energy, but when you talk about water and climate change the conversation is different.
“When they talk about climate change, it is all about energy and what kind of energy do we use, but when you talk about water it’s all about how are we adapting,” she said.
Mulroy said areas around the country, not just the western United States, will have to adapt to very different climates than they've had. And while some people have declared the drought in California over because of the extraordinary amount of snow and rain the state received this year, Mulroy has a different take.
“One good winter on the Colorado doesn’t solve the problem as you’re seeing right now,” she said.
She said the new normal of a dryer, hotter climate must be dealt with.
“When we talk about the new normal, we’re talking about a world with a very different climate,” Mulroy said.
Mulroy and Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water, co-wrote the chapter on the Colorado River, which provides water to Las Vegas and much of the Southwest. They write that despite the feuds among the states along the river and between environmental, agricultural, and urban interests, management of the river can still provide lessons in effective water policy.
Both Mulroy and Lochhead point to the Colorado River Compact, which was created in the 1920s, as the reason water is so well managed in the West, compared with other regions of the country. Under the compact, all seven states that use the Colorado are considered equal partners. It has meant that the states and the federal government have had to work together on water policy.
That communication and effort are even more important as the earth's climate changes, Lochhead said.
“Together, the seven states and the federal government I believe can implement programs to innovatively manage the system so it’s going to be sustainable,” he said. “The system is going to change more quickly and we need to be more adaptable and nimble as a system in terms of how we manage the water supply.”
Mulroy said the kind of collaboration seen by the upper and lower basin states is just the kind of collaboration that needs to be done around the country to adapt to climate change. And the former Las Vegas water boss wants this book to be a wake-up call for everyone about how water is used in the face of dramatic changes in our climate.
“This is not a time to be complacent. This is not a time to continue to ignore water the way we have in the past. We take it for granted,” she said.
Just like everything we do has a carbon footprint, Mulroy said everything we have and everything we do has a water footprint as well. She said Las Vegans are actually more aware of that water footprint than people living in other states because we live on the banks of the river and see the bathtub ring at Lake Mead every time we go there.
“The complacency has to end and the conversation has to begin," she said.
Pat Mulroy, former head of Southern Nevada Water Authority; Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water