Thompson: Water is an issue that requires us to work
together. We’re in Arizona, which is one of the seven states that share the Colorado River and play by the rules set out in the 1922 Colorado Compact. Pat Mulroy, you’re responsible for getting water to some 2 million Las Vegas residents, and 90 percent of that comes out of the Colorado River via Lake Mead. Can you explain how this kind of consensus works?
Mulroy: At the end of the day, the Colorado Compact is an agreement that allows seven states to do whatever seven states can agree to do, but no one state can rule its neighbors no matter how big it is. That’s the beauty of the compact. As it stands now, we move the Colorado River across the Continental Divide through the Rocky Mountains to Colorado’s front range to the Kansas-Nebraska watershed. In New Mexico, we move that water to Albuquerque into the Rio Grande watershed. In Utah, we move it across the Utah desert to the Wasatch Front. Here in the middle of Arizona, we’re moving Colorado River water along a massive aqueduct. California moves the water 400 miles through an aqueduct to the coastal cities. It goes on and on and on. We’re all interconnected.
Gammage: Water is the ultimate tribal commodity. Water defines our tribe—those with whom we share water are us. Those who are trying to take it away are them. And the big them in the Southwest is California. We needed to be allies to deal with California. And Arizona and Nevada have been pretty good allies.
Mulroy: You can’t push at one end of this system and not feel the effects in another part
of the system.
Cullen: If I can just put the climate lens on top of that, we made some really key decisions in the 1900s when we decided what the normal water flow was for the Colorado River, and normal was 17 million acre-feet in a year. During the drought from 2001 to 2006, it was actually 11 million acre-feet. And in 2002 it was as low as 6 million acre-feet. So what was normal in the 1900s is not normal now.
Thompson: Pat, what kind of stress is population growth putting on your freshwater resources?
Mulroy: Ten years ago I would have said that population growth is putting a tremendous stress on it. But in Las Vegas we had so much pressure when the drought hit that we became extremely aggressive about conservation. We reduced the amount of water southern Nevada was using by one-third since then, despite the fact that we increased our population
Gammage: The remarkable thing about Las Vegas is how quickly they were able—led by Pat—to make this change. Arizona has been decreasing its water use slowly for a longer period of time. The city of Phoenix today uses about the same amount of water as a decade ago because of per capita reductions. We took water away from farming in times of drought, and we urbanized land and water at the same time. It’s been a fairly orderly transition without doing some of the draconian things that Pat did in Las Vegas.
Thompson: What about building big water infrastructure as a way to solve water problems?
Gammage: I have this sense that we have lost our collective will to build things: pipelines, the Central Arizona Project canal, Hoover Dam, those kinds of things.
Thompson: Pat, the state engineer is supposed to rule by the end of next January on one of your big initiatives, your request to bring 65 billion gallons of water from northern Nevada to Las Vegas. Do you see this issue as a rural versus city fight?
Mulroy: No, I don’t. We filed for unappropriated, unused water. If Lake Mead, which has been in a drought for nearly a decade, hits elevations of 1,075 feet or, God forbid, 1,025 feet, where is southern Nevada’s water going to come from? It is impossible to conserve 90 percent of your water supply. There has to be a pressure release valve, and that’s what we’re asking for.
Cullen: I want to add that the Colorado Compact was established in 1922, a relatively wet period. The Colorado Compact was a really long-term decision made on a short record. Now, in the Midwest, we’re feeling that all these flooding events we’re seeing are the new normal and will continue to happen. The climate is shifting and we have to adapt.
Audience member: We know that the 20th century was the era of big dams, big infrastructure projects. Considering climate change and population growth, what is the next wave in developing our water resources?
Richardson: You can’t have sensible water policies without taking climate change and renewable energy and what we use into consideration. My state is an oil and gas state, and the oil guys don’t like me too much because what I’ve been saying is that we have to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy—solar, wind, biomass, et cetera. Renewable energy uses less water. We need a dramatic reduction of man-made greenhouse gas emissions.
Mulroy: You’re going to do everything—increased efficiency, conservation regulations, recycled water, desalination, and more. There’s no silver bullet solution anymore. It’s a mosaic.
And it’s going to depend on where you are. Singapore has a water supply that is leaning toward reuse and ocean desalination. They just build one big plant after another.
In this country, and in the world, actually, water use for purposes of energy generation is approaching or surpassing water use for agriculture. It’s power, and there are limits. So the next wave has to be everything, starting with much less demand by our customers.
Gammage: It’s hard to get the public to understand all those things. It’s a harder message than “Let’s build an interstate highway system.”
Richardson: You remember when I ran for president? It was short-lived. Water didn’t help me because I proposed a solution that many, including Pat, didn’t like. But I said that in this country we need federal water leadership, and we don’t have it. Maybe we need a water czar of some kind.
Gammage: I’m not convinced that’s a good idea. In Arizona, we have made multiple water decisions in many places, examining the decisions from multiple perspectives. A water czar might make a big mistake, and I think it would be exceedingly difficult to get the states to agree to that level of federal involvement.