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Politics: Liquid legacy
Story by Launce Rake and
Photography by Aaron McKinney
Submitted: Water boss Pat Mulroy both enabled heedless growth and was our most effective government official. Discuss.
It was the kind of thing you don’t often see: An angry public official pounding a desk on television, throwing down an ultimatum and growling, “There is no option!”
It was Patricia Mulroy, the boss of Nevada’s water fortunes, telling political journalist Jon Ralston in 2007 that the environmental, political and financial cost of a new pipeline were irrelevant. It was time to stop listening to critics and get it — a huge drill-pipe-and-pump effort to augment our water supply — done. That performance, self-assured and unyielding, was consistent with Mulroy’s three decades in public service, which come to an end with her retirement this month from the Las Vegas Water District and the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
Let the legacy assessment begin.
Since 1989, when she was handed the reins of water control by powerful allies in the Clark County government, Mulroy has undoubtedly put her stamp on our physical, social, economic and political infrastructure. Much of the rampant growth of the last two decades was made possible in part by her agencies. As “water czar,” she parlayed a mix of charm, intellect, understanding of power politics and a ruthless skill at bureaucratic infighting into a position as one of Nevada’s most powerful figures, sometimes touted as governor material. In 2009, Steve Wynn called her “the best public servant I’ve met in my 40 years on the Strip.”
Says historian Michael Green, “A recent issue of High Country News included a story called ‘The Vegas Paradox: In Sin City, excess and efficiency work hand in hand.’ That is essentially the world in which Pat Mulroy has worked, pushing for conservation and wise use while also keeping the volcanoes and canals and fountains running. On the one hand, she has operated brilliantly, obtaining additional water beyond the 300,000 acre-feet Nevada receives under the Colorado River Compact and instituting conservation measures that have been incredibly successful. On the other hand, she has been attacked for the idea of a pipeline that could be environmentally disastrous and thus do damage in rural Nevada that other measures in Las Vegas have been designed to avoid.”
Hers is clearly a complicated legacy. To many, Mulroy appeared to serve a very specific constituency: developers and the casino industry. A frequent refrain in her speeches was that Southern Nevada is the economic backbone of the state, and therefore the water needs of its industries must be satisfied. On the same Ralston program, she separated Southern Nevada into two communities: the public and the developers. The question for many was which took precedence in the SNWA offices.
In the mid-2000s, when critics of unrestricted growth suggested it was time to slow down, catch up, build traffic lanes and schools to ease the impacts of the highest rate of population growth in the country, Mulroy scoffed. In 2003 she commissioned an 1,800-page study, frequently cited by elected and industrial officials, which indicated that a complete shutdown of residential and commercial development would lead to economic calamity. Never mind that such a clampdown would be political, legally and economically impossible — it was the straw man that shut down conversations about slowing growth.
Two years later, when that growth looked like it might eventually outstrip the water supplied by the Colorado River, Mulroy reversed an earlier position on the idea of a pipeline to pump billions of gallons from rural Nevada to Las Vegas. Instead of calling it “stupid,” as she previously had, she began insisting that it was the only solution. Her agencies for years insisted the operation would cost just $2 billion, then $3 billion, then $3.6 billion. Today the cost estimate, produced and totaled by SNWA contractors two years ago, is well above $15 billion, including more than $8 billion in financing charges. Meanwhile, the project has become a controversial and divisive issue.
[HEAR MORE: What challenges does the new water chief face? Hear a discussion on "KNPR’s State of Nevada."]
Mulroy’s influence enabled her to take actions you might not expect of a water agency bosses. SNWA spent $80 million to buy ranches in one of the rural valleys targeted for the pipeline, a move that effectively ended vocal opposition there. Today SNWA remains among the largest cattle ranchers in the state. She also built the largest and most expensive-to-use public park in the county, the $250 million (and annually subsidized to the tune of $5 million-$10 million) Springs Preserve, with barely a question as to why the water agency would or should be building a massive recreation and education center.
In 2007, Clark County Commissioner and SNWA board member Chris Giunchigliani questioned the need for the water agency to acquire those ranches; she found her tenure on the SNWA board a short one, especially after the local paper-of-record labeled her a traitor to Southern Nevada for her position.
Even when the economic downturn — in part precipitated by the mortgage industry collapse that ironically started in Las Vegas — destroyed the runaway engine of population growth in Southern Nevada, Mulroy stuck by her pipeline, even against a growing chorus of critics. The agency all but abandoned the argument that the water was needed for more growth, now saying the pipeline is needed to augment the dwindling, overused and under-replenished supply from the Colorado River.
She also drew a host of critics for a 2012 water-rate hike that saw some businesses hit with increases of up to 300 percent.
Whether or not the pipeline is ever built — and late last year it suffered yet another in a string of serious setbacks in Nevada courts — it’s sure to be the centerpiece of her legacy. But there’s more to it. Her conservation measures cut the effective water-use rate by more than a third, both in per-capita and overall terms. And she gets a share of the credit for the growth-driven prosperity that she so efficiently enabled during the valley’s 6,000-new-residents-a-month phase.
And she has passionate fans among the political and economic elite in Southern Nevada. Terry Murphy, president of a local consulting firm Strategic Solutions, has both supported and opposed some development proposals for nearly two decades in Las Vegas. “She ran a tight ship and spoke her mind, and that drew a good amount of criticism. But there was never a time she didn’t have the best interests of this community in mind, and never a time she gave up fighting for Southern Nevada,” Murphy says. “Pat’s been a role model, a strategic thinker, and a force of nature. And every morning when I turn on my tap, clean water comes out.”
“Unquestionably,” Green says, “she has been one of the most important government officials — and possibly the most important unelected government official — in the history of Southern Nevada.”
Along the way, Mulroy suffered some professional disappointments. Talk that she could be a viable candidate for Nevada governor, or a deputy or even secretary of the federal Department of the Interior — given her obvious skill at running relatively large bureaucracies — dwindled over time as the controversy over the pipeline grew louder and more acrimonious.
Mulroy’s announcement late last year that she would resign brought forth a gush of complimentary coverage in local media. It also brought about a short-lived power struggle between her hand-picked successor, a SNWA deputy, and a challenger, ostensibly one of her bosses. Clark County Commissioner Larry Brown wanted the job, and criticized the number of people making six-digit salaries under Mulroy’s supervision. Like so many other fights, Mulroy won this one, too. In yet one more way, her legacy, good or ill, once again was secured.
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