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Story by Heidi Kyser and
Photography by Brent Holmes
New water chief John Entsminger on lakes, lawns and how he plans to keep the taps flowing in Southern Nevada (hint: It’s not all about the rural pipeline plan anymore)
What do you get for $260,000 a year? We get John Entsminger, the new general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. For his part, Entsminger gets a big, fat dehydration headache: A region of 2.5 million people kept alive by a water source, the Colorado River, that’s quickly drying up; a controversial Plan B to pipe groundwater from the eastern part of the state; a “third straw” expansion that’s behind schedule and over budget; and a citizenry that’s highly skeptical of public officials.
Still, Entsminger says he’s happy he got the job. The Colorado native, who was plucked from UC Boulder’s law school to be the authority’s environmental attorney, believes this is his chance to make a real difference in the world. Over the last 15 years, he’s paid his dues at the authority.
Who is this guy? Is he just a ghost of Pat Mulroy’s past? Does he have what it takes to steer thirsty Southern Nevada through what may be its direst — and driest — straits yet?
How does being from the upper basin of the Colorado River (as opposed to the lower basin, of which Nevada is a part) influence your view of water law and management?
I think it’s extremely helpful, because I grew up with water issues in Colorado, and now they’re one of our main partners in negotiating river issues. So understanding the wants, the needs, the politics of your partner helps to form a better partnership.
Tell me a story that helped shape your view of water.
I remember when I was an undergraduate at the University of Boulder in Colorado walking back towards my apartment at the time, and somebody told me, “You know, the Colorado River no longer makes it to the ocean.” I was appalled by that statement. And I’ve not gotten a chance in my professional life to work on very complex issues, where you’re balancing the needs of municipalities, the needs of agriculture and the needs of the environment, as well. Through Minute 319 (a 2012 water agreement with Mexico) we were able to effectuate the first flows of water from the Colorado River back to the ocean in about 50 years.
That hasn’t happened yet, though, has it?
It’s planned for this year. The pulse flow is supposed to be this year.
You like to fish. Would you eat a fish caught in the lower Colorado River?
Uh, yes, in one of the big reservoirs.
You would eat a fish caught in Lake Mead?
Do you drink our tap water?
Do you filter it?
I do not.
Is there still perchlorate in the water?
Very low levels, within the EPA guidance.
Can you quantify that?
One-point-two parts per billion.
Since SNWA recruited you straight out of law school, effectively, you have no other job experience, right?
It depends on what you mean by job experience. I’ve worked in construction jobs, as a Quizno’s sandwich delivery boy. I’ve been a bartender, worked landscaping.
And high school, yeah. During law school, I worked for the Department of Justice in their Indian Rights division. I worked for a private law firm in Denver, also during law school.
What would you say to someone who feels your experience isn’t broad enough to qualify you for the job you’ve taken on?
Any time you’re looking for a chief executive, you can go outside and bring in someone with different experiences, but they’ll have a steep learning curve on the specific situation of that utility. Or you can go with someone from the inside who obviously has a firm grasp of all the operational issues, all the resource challenges, but probably doesn’t have as broad an exposure. That’s a choice every community has to make whenever a job like this comes up.
Pat Mulroy has said she hand-picked you to replace her. Can you describe the grooming process from your perspective?
Well, you’d have to ask Pat when she made that decision, because, in terms of a conversation with me, the first time she ever really said, “You should move out of the legal department and start getting ready for bigger, executive-level responsibilities,” was about 2010. But I think the grooming process probably goes back to 2002, 2003 when Pat, early on, started giving me additional roles and responsibilities. With that came quite a bit of tough love, too.
[HEAR MORE: Listen to a discussion of the proposed rural water pipeline on "KNPR’s State of Nevada."]
Well, I walked around for a good part of 2006, and every time Pat saw me, she’d call me a loser, because I hadn’t given her the Memorandum of Agreement to get certain environmental compliance activities completed. She wanted that, and she wanted it now. (Laughs)
Did she ever have conversations with you, one-on-one, where she said, “When you’re me, you’re going to have to do this”?
Over the last couple years … she was pushing me out into different processes. An example is the IRPAC (Integrated Resource Planning Advisory Committee) process that she had me lead for most of last year. She would not attend those herself, but 30 seconds after it was done, I’d call her and she would run through everything that happened, coaching me or telling me what I should’ve done differently — really, that sort of game-time experience.
Well, I think what makes this job unique is, you have the (Las Vegas Valley) Water District side of operations, which is a pretty traditional retail utility that probably somebody from Phoenix or Denver or anybody who’s run a water utility could probably come in and do. But in addition to that, you have this regional water overlay of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which brings with it the role, really, of the de facto lead negotiator for Nevada on the Colorado River with six states, the federal government, NGOs (nongovernment organizations). And that, in my opinion, is where I’ve made my mark, where I have the bona fides and the relationships to say, “I’m the best person to sit at the table for Nevada and protect all our interests on the Colorado River.” So, if you want a more traditional utility manager, there are those guys around. If you want your chief executive to be the lead negotiator on the Colorado River, I feel – and I know Pat felt, and, ultimately, the board felt – that I’m the right person for that job.
Will you differ from Mulroy on any significant issues?
You’d almost have to have an example, because if Pat were still here, the challenges of 2014 and 2015, I think she would probably address them in a different way than she addressed the challenges in 2002 and 2003. I think Pat and I, philosophically, are very much aligned … but when I make a decision six months from now, when people ask, “Would Pat have done the same thing?” there’s no way to know. Because the facts are going to have changed.
How about growth, for example?
Well, I don’t think the Water Authority or the Water District is the final decision-maker when it comes to growth. We have a number of democratic mechanisms — zoning, business licensing, any number of things — where government has a say in whether and how we grow. I think the water part of the equation is twofold: First, I think the water agency needs to be responsive and give the community the tools it wants to be the community it wants to be. But I also think they need to be honest and tell them, “If you want to grow one way — if you want to have half-acre lots with wall-to-wall turf — there’s a limit to the amount of growth and economic expansion that our water supply can sustain. The day will come when you won’t be able to do that anymore. If you want to build another Manhattan next to the Strip, and have 100-percent indoor use and no outdoor use, there’s really no limit on how much you can grow.” Now, whether or not the community wants 9 million people is a question for them to decide.
It sounds like you’d agree with the idea that growth is in Southern Nevada’s DNA.
I don’t know. It sort of makes it sound like I’m agreeing that we should have a goal of getting back to where we were in the ’90s and 2000s, and I don’t think we’re going to see that kind of cycle again. I think of those as Las Vegas’ teenage years, and I think our community is maturing, so that we’ll get more of the, if you can call it normal-level growth, of 2, 3, 4 percent, where the community will have a more normal maturation process after this.
You talked about the other governmental mechanisms involved – permitting, zoning, etc. How does that work from practical standpoint? Does a planner come to you and say, “We’re looking at approving this sub-development. Is the infrastructure there? Can it be there?”
Well, there are a couple of layers to it. First, we do a resource plan that looks out 50 years, but we do it every year, so it’s constantly rolling forward. Some communities, you have to have a water commitment — you know, “Here’s where the water is coming from for this house, you know, for this many years.” Arizona has a 100-year assured water supply law. That’s the old model. What we’ve done is an aggregate plan for the entire community. Our resource plan says, “OK here’s the water we have; here’s how much we’re going to develop.” We take CBER — the Center for Business and Economic Research — population projections, and embed our conservation goal, and we fill in the mosaic of resources we have to make sure we have enough water for the community as a whole. And that resource plan is what the State Engineer — who has to sign off on subdivision maps — relies upon to say, OK there’s enough water and I can sign this. For macro-level, that’s how it functions. When you get down to specifics — you know the water district, say of Henderson, follows a very specific set of service rules when a developer comes in and says, “I want to run a pipeline from here to here for a new 7-Eleven or subdivision.” That’s more logistical infrastructure.
You said philosophically you and Mulroy are aligned. Does that apply to the proposed water pipeline?
I think so, but I want to make sure I say what my philosophy is. I view the groundwater project as the community safety net. I think that — with 90 percent of the water supply for seven out of 10 people who live in the state of Nevada coming from one source (Lake Mead) that’s demonstrably dynamic and variable and could be at risk, given the ongoing drought and emergence of climate-change impacts on snowpack in the Rocky Mountains — a prudent water manager has to have a Plan B. … There is clearly a preference to solve our problems on the river, to be able to secure the community’s water supply without resorting to the groundwater project, but at the end of the day, we need a failsafe.
Do the other Colorado River Basin states require that you have that Plan B? In other words, that you exhaust all of your in-state possibilities before you go to them asking for more water off the river?
Well, the other six states have been very good at working with Nevada. They recognize that Nevada has 1.8 percent of the legal entitlement on the River, and over the course of the last 20 years, really, the other states have been good at finding flexibility within the Law of the River to allow us to diversify our portfolio within that same asset class. But there’s an expectation, clearly, that no water is going to come out of their legal entitlements, and if we need to solve our own problems, then, ultimately, they know we have resources within our own state and we need to, as a state, look inside before we look outside.
It’s been described as a vulnerability — having water in-state that we’re not using, when we’re sharing with six other states the resource that’s supplying seven out of 10 people in Nevada with 90 percent their water. Does it put you in a difficult negotiating position?
I guess I see it the other way. I don’t think having options is a vulnerability. Now, if you’re an opponent of the groundwater project, and you don’t want to see it go forward, I suppose you could cast it as, “Well, if we didn’t have this, the other states would have no choice but to help us find something else.” But, we’ve explored desal projects; we will continue to explore desal. We’ve done system conservation agreements. We’ve pushed on all fronts to help secure our community’s water supply and will continue to do so, and having a viable option within your own borders is the opposite of a vulnerability.
With the recent court decision overturning the state engineer’s approvals, plus intense public opposition and high cost estimates, is this project still even feasible?
It’s absolutely feasible. It’s not easy, and it won’t be popular, but it’s feasible. If you look at the overall costs of the groundwater project, they’re big numbers, but if you had to do it with zero growth … the average cost of people’s water bills would still be less than the average cost of their cell phone bills.
Mulroy often invoked the 1,075 number as a kind of alarm bell. Is that the Lake Mead water level that triggers emergency measures?
Yes and no. At 1,075 feet, the secretary of Interior declares a shortage in the lower basin (of the Colorado River), and Nevada takes its first-ever reduction to its legal entitlement. But our community has been so successful with our conservation that there wouldn’t be any mandatory reductions to consumers at that point. We’ve absorbed that first level of cut.
Can you unpack that, please?
In 2002, we consumptively used 325,000 acre feet of water off the river. Last year, we used approximately 240,000. So we’ve reduced our consumptive use of water off the river by about a third. We have an annual legal entitlement to 300,000, so we’re not using 60,000 of that. So, at 1,075, the first (mandated) cut for Nevada is 13,000 acre feet, which would take us down to 287,000. But we’re only using 240,000.
So we have a little bit of a cushion before we’d feel the cuts.
Yeah. At 1,050 feet (at Lake Mead), it (the cut in our allotment of river water) goes to 17,000 (acre feet). And at 1,025 it goes to 20,000. So, even at the third level of cut, we still aren’t using enough water to require anybody to begin mandatory rationing.
But all three water intakes into Lake Mead wouldn’t work at that point, would they?
That becomes the question: What happens below 1,025? Below 1,025, your intakes are becoming imperiled; your water quality could become drastically reduced; and you don’t know what the Secretary of the Interior is going to do. There are more cuts below 1,025, but the 2007 guidelines left them unquantified. How big are those, and what impact would they have on the community?
You’ve said you’ll explore all options, including desalination. Mulroy once told me the amount of power it takes to run a desal plant requires a nuclear facility, and that’s so risky that it wouldn’t happen. Is that still the case?
Desalinating water is incredibly power-intensive. Moving water is incredibly power-intensive. One of the proposals — probably the one Pat was talking about — mainly emanating out of Arizona — has been for a nuclear facility combined with a desal plant at Port Peñasco on the Gulf of California. Her thinking, and I would tend to agree, is that in the wake of Fukushima, you’re probably not building another nuclear power plant at the tip of the San Andreas Fault. So, what are your other options?
What are your other options?
I think our best option for desal is with Mexico. I think that, with the completion of Minute 319, we’ve come a tremendous way in solving some of our issues with Mexico. … In particular, there’s an existing power facility at Rosarita Beach, just north of Tijuana that has a lot of promise for desal, and the beauty of that one is you could do some direct importation into Southern California, and maybe leave a piece of their water or Mexico’s water in Lake Mead.
So if we did a desal deal with Mexico, would it be a swap situation, or would we try to haul the water up here?
To be cost-effective for Nevada, any desal plant has to be, as you characterize it, a swap.
It has to be used locally?
Yes, in the coastal areas, and we have to trade water back up-river. The cost of moving that amount of water from the coast is prohibitive.
Kind of like moving it 300 miles across the desert?
Except for the fact that the groundwater project is almost all gravity.
It’s downhill, right. Rank these on a potential reality scale, with 1 being impossible and 5 being likely: the water pipeline, a desalination plant in Mexico and draining Lake Powell.
I’ll go backwards. Draining Lake Powell is a 1. The upper basin states will go to the Supreme Court; they’ll go to Congress (to stop it). It is a political hill to die for, for them — and with good reason: That’s their bank account. They owe the lower basin, under the (Colorado River Water) Compact, 75 million acre-feet over every 10-year period. And without Lake Powell sitting there to act as their bank account for that, you could literally be talking about shutting off water supplies to Cheyenne, Salt Lake City, Denver, Albuquerque, together with all the agricultural and industrial uses they have up there. The groundwater project, I’d probably put it at a 2, 2.5, just because, like I said, we need that safety net in our portfolio. Desal, either in California or in Mexico, I think it’s a 4. Now, we’re not talking timeframe here, but, if I had a time machine and I could go out 30 years, or 40 years, I expect there to be major desal facilities on the West Coast of the North American continent.
Do you have a lawn?
I do have a lawn — in front, but not in back. In back, I have artificial turf. In front I have a small grass area.
What kind of grass? Fescue? Kentucky blue?
I don’t know. It was there when I moved in.
Will you still be able to spend weekends doing fun things with your wife and kids, lying on the couch reading, now that you’re the chief of one of the three or four biggest water districts in the Western United States?
Yes. I only have so many things in my life. I have a big job, and I have a family that’s extremely important to me, and other than that, I don’t have a lot on my plate. I intend to take care of them both.
So you’re not training for a marathon or anything?
No. But I did go to the gym this morning. I might be training for, like, a 5k.
You read a lot of books, I hear. How many have you read so far this year?
What was the last one?
The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy.
Are you happy to have this job?
I am happy to have this job. I think it’s important for the community. I recognize that it’s a job where you’re not going to make all the people happy all the time, but I don’t think there’s anything more important than water as a public trust for all areas of our community and for the region. And I’m happy to get to work on important things.
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