Municipal Water Leader
Interview

Pat Mulroy: Secrets to Success on the Colorado River

Pat Mulroy is a legendary figure on the Colorado River. The former general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District (LVVWD) and of the Southern Nevada Water Agency (SNWA), she also served as the lead negotiator for the State of Nevada on the Colorado River. Today, she runs her own consulting firm and is a senior fellow at the law school of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In this interview, Ms. Mulroy tells Municipal Water Leader about her decades of experience and accomplishments and discusses the challenges that remain to be solved in the Colorado basin. 

Municipal Water Leader: Tell us about your background and your experience in Nevada water. 

Pat Mulroy: I was born in Frankfurt in what was then known as West Germany. My father was a civilian in the U.S. Air Force. In 1974, I went to Las Vegas, where I completed my bachelor’s degree at the University of Las Vegas and got my master’s degree. I then went to Stanford University to pursue doctoral studies. After that, I came back to Las Vegas and started working for Clark County. I worked in the manager’s office and with the board and got heavily involved in the legislature, doing intergovernmental work for the county. After that, I went over to the Justice Court, where I created the first Justice Court administrator position. A few years later, in 1985, I was offered and accepted the job of deputy general manager of the LVVWD. When my boss, the general manager, left in 1989, the board made me the first female general manager of the district. I held that position until 2014. 

In 1991, The LVVWD and the other jurisdictions in Southern Nevada created a regional organization called the SNWA, which is similar to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWDSC). The board of the SNWA asked me if I would head the authority as well, so I held that position and reported to the SNWA board from 1992 to 2014. During that period, I ended up becoming the lead negotiator for the State of Nevada on the Colorado River. I was a participant and active negotiator in some of the most historic agreements that had happened on the river since the signing of the Colorado River Compact in 1922, and I also worked on several minutes to the Mexican treaty. 

Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your experience addressing drought on the Colorado River. 

Pat Mulroy: During those years, water became my passion. I became even more active in the field as the reality of climate change began to settle in in southern Nevada and around the West, and an already dry area became even drier. It forced us to make some significant changes, mostly in adjusting our customers’ attitudes about how much water they needed and could use. In southern Nevada, as is the case in virtually every western state, most water is used outside for landscaping, parks, and golf courses. 

The drought set in in 2000. It then took a deep dive in 2002, when there was only 25 percent of the normal runoff in the upper basin. The four upper basin states are the predominant areas from which the water in the Colorado comes. Through various tributaries, it ends up in Lake Powell. Lake Powell has a regimented release to Lake Mead; the area in between is the Grand Canyon. Lake Mead then services the three lower basin states and the country of Mexico. With only 25 percent of the normal runoff in 2002, Lake Powell was crashing catastrophically, and we could see that all the benefits that we had negotiated for Nevada in the mid- to late 1990s were evaporating before our eyes. 

In response, we in southern Nevada embarked on one of the most aggressive conservation programs the country had ever seen. We began to pay our customers to take their grass out. Since then, southern Nevada has removed enough grass to form a roll of sod that could reach all the way around the planet. We cut our water use by almost 40 percent. We supplemented the grass buyback program with restrictions on grass in new construction. We established seasonal water schedules and enforced them. We warned our users about breaking the new rules, but if they did, we just put the extra cost on their water bill. If they didn’t pay, we shut off their water. It was really effective—more effective than trying to pursue a pathway through the courts, where judges were anxious to placate their constituents and eager to rescind those penalties. 

An aerial view of Hoover Dam and Lake Mead.

Simultaneously, we had to begin negotiating with our neighboring states and Mexico again so that we could come up with a regional shortage plan, one that would work for the upper basin in terms of how Lakes Powell and Mead were managed conjunctively and that would establish the elevations in Lake Mead at which the lower basin states would start voluntarily stepping back our use. That took until 2007. 

At the same time, we negotiated a minute with Mexico. We did something unheard of: We allowed the country of Mexico to use storage capacity in our reservoirs as buffer against drought. Specifically, in years when it was able to take its full allocation but chose not to, Mexico could store agricultural water in Lake Mead and then call on a certain amount of it during an emergency. With that in place, Mexico agreed that it would accept shortages at exactly the same elevations and at exactly the same times as the lower basin states. By the end of 2012, we had created a true megaregional water plan that spanned seven states and two countries. 

Municipal Water Leader: Which of those accomplishments are you most proud of? 

Pat Mulroy: The creation of the SNWA, because it was so important and so difficult. There’s nothing more difficult than getting elected officials to cede power to someone else. The benefit was that I ran the LVVWD, which was the 800‑pound gorilla. When the elected officials saw that the LVVWD was willing to cede power—something about which I had some interesting debates, as you can imagine, with some members of my board—they were willing to cede power, too. If the SNWA hadn’t been created, there never would have been a conservation plan and Nevada could not have negotiated the agreements on the Colorado River that have become essential to the area’s survival. 

When we created the SNWA, we did something unheard of in the West: We threw out our priority water rights and said that nobody had a priority over anybody else. When you think about it, priorities like that between cities are insane. I can run water down the streets of Las Vegas, while the City of Henderson gets no water? That’s stupid. We threw out our priority water rights and decided to enter into a shared shortage agreement, which was essentially a regional conservation plan. The SNWA developed the blueprint regarding what conservation measures had to be taken. Those required every entity to rewrite its regulations, ordinances, and water rate structures and to implement and enforce the same measures across the board. That saved southern Nevada. Southern Nevada would not be what it is today had the SNWA not been formed and had we not set aside decades of war between the various jurisdictions. 

Municipal Water Leader: What lessons do you think the creation of the SNWA has for other river systems that are facing tremendous challenges, such as the Rio Grande? 

Pat Mulroy: To be frank, I think the only way a lot of these regions are going to be able to survive what climate change is going to dish out to them is by starting to think less parochially and more regionally and to start thinking about institutions like a water authority. An institution like that allows members to maintain their self-governance and doesn’t disturb the relationship between elected officials and their constituents but allows you to manage necessary items in tandem with your neighbors. 

First of all, I don’t think that people in this country can afford the enormous bill that’s headed their way. We talk about increasing the costs of energy to mitigate the effects of climate change, but when you look at the costs that are going to be associated with retooling many of our water systems, especially in an environment in which you have decaying urban systems, the costs become enormous. In many instances, you can achieve greater cost efficiencies if the facilities benefit various areas, all of whom share in the cost; you spread the costs over a larger constituency. In southern Nevada, we built $5 billion of water infrastructure without a single dime of federal money, but we were only able to do it all ourselves because we spread the cost out. Larger, regional thinking also makes all the communities in the area more resilient and opens up opportunities that can avoid expensive solutions. Look at the banking arrangements in the lower basin, such as the Arizona Groundwater Bank and the virtual bank between the SNWA and the MWDSC. They represent creative exchanges that require little expensive infrastructure, if any. 

Municipal Water Leader: Since you mentioned energy, what are your thoughts on the reduced energy production on the Colorado?

Pat Mulroy: I think the day of reckoning is going to come. We are going to see energy production virtually disappear on large swaths of the river, especially in the lower basin. There are communities in Nevada that are 100 percent powered by Hoover Dam—it’s their only energy source. Boulder City receives the bulk of its power from Hoover Dam, and all of Lincoln and White Pine Counties are served by Glen Canyon Dam. When you start looking at the cumulative effect, the picture becomes pretty ugly. 

Municipal Water Leader: What are the necessary next steps for Colorado River management? 

Pat Mulroy: We’re still in the midst of a multidecadal drought. This is not a drought event, this is a true shift in hydrology. The 2007 agreement expires in 2026, and I can’t think of an agreement that’s more essential to the Colorado basin states than the renewal and enhancement of those 2007 guidelines. The states are examining what worked well and what didn’t and where improvements can be made. It will hopefully result in another longer-term agreement. In general, you never want to make agreements in perpetuity in a world of climate change. You may have to make course corrections along the way. I’ve become a big believer in short-term, sequential agreements that build on one another. But if the 2007 guidelines are not reupped, it will pose an existential threat to the Colorado River basin. It’s going to take a great deal of diplomacy. These are difficult politics. In order to get to 2026, states may have to make earlier and deeper cuts in water use. 

An additional factor is that a lot of experienced hands are retiring. That gives me pause, because much of the river community’s ability to reach these important agreements has been predicated on relationships and on people’s abilities to understand their neighbors at an intricate level. You need to know where the other states’ vulnerabilities lie and what they won’t be able to deliver on for political or practical reasons. Trust and collaboration are essential. I’m hoping that some of the older hands remain on the job long enough to help the next generation of negotiators gain the same level of understanding and the same collaborative spirit. 

Municipal Water Leader: Are there any new folks that you see as rising stars? 

Pat Mulroy: In southern Nevada, John Entsminger, the current general manager of the SNWA. I have not had the opportunity to make a judgment call regarding folks in Colorado. Colorado has always been a strong leader in the upper basin because it has the largest share of the upper basin’s water supply, it contains the headwaters for most of the Colorado River’s flow, and it has a strong culture of water politics and water laws. In the lower basin, with Jeff Kightlinger leaving the MWDSC, it is going to be hugely important that the agency finds a strong leader who is able to bring Jeff ’s level of leadership and understanding to the table. 

Municipal Water Leader: Tell us about the projects you are working on now. 

Pat Mulroy: I’m still working with the MWDSC on some Colorado River issues, but I’ve also started a consulting firm. I really enjoyed a project I worked on in northern Nevada for Switch, which is a data center company. There is a big industrial park called the Truckee River Industrial Complex right outside Reno in Storey County. We were able to successfully persuade the local entities in the Reno-Sparks area to allow 4,000 acre-feet of the effluent from their wastewater treatment plant to be delivered to this industrial complex to use as cooling water. 

I’m a big believer in reuse, but I believe in using it strategically. I worry that if reuse water goes straight to a home, something’s going to break down somewhere and someone’s going to get sick. If that happens, the whole reuse effort will be set back decades. Having industrial users or outside applications that are sophisticated enough and have deep enough pockets to hire experienced private-sector water companies to build and run the required treatment facilities for them will make an enormous difference. 

We talk a lot about the amount of water that agriculture uses, but we haven’t begun to talk about how much water the industrial sector and data centers use. Producing one cell phone battery requires 1,400 gallons of water. Multiply that by the number of cell phones we use. Plants that produce larger lithium batteries can use as much water as whole communities. 

Municipal Water Leader: How important do you think the annual Colorado River Water Users Association meeting has been to the success of Colorado? 

Pat Mulroy: I think it has been very important. Everybody attends it, so it is a great venue to structure other meetings around. It’s also great for forging relationships. It was started nonthreateningly as a coming together of the actual users. It has created a forum that has been incredibly helpful in creating the necessary cooperation between various states. 

The other thing we’ve been successful at is keeping partisan politics out of this discussion. When you think about it, the states along the Colorado River are either very Republican or very Democratic. Few are in the middle ground. However, when it comes to the subject of water, partisan politics leave the room. If the representatives of the seven states go to their senators and ask them to send a letter to Interior, it is not hard to get all 14 senators to sign on. And when 14 senators from both Democratic and Republican states sign the same letter on the same topic, the administration reacts quickly. The Drought Contingency Plan is a recent example of that. 

Municipal Water Leader: You’ve developed a tremendous reputation as a decisive, tough, and successful leader. How would you characterize your success? 

Pat Mulroy: I would characterize it as the success of the agencies I have been involved with, and that success is the result of the cumulative effort of a lot of talented people. If I personally am being held up as successful, I would say that my greatest success is to have brought together a strong team that was able to do extraordinary work under difficult circumstances. We often make the mistake of thinking that success is something achieved by one person. It’s always a larger group. What makes a difference for any leader is the ability to surround themselves with people who will push back; who aren’t yes men; and who have the courage, conviction, and talent to work their way through difficult situations. 

Municipal Water Leader: In addition to surrounding themselves with good people, what qualities should a leader have to be successful? 

Pat Mulroy: The ability to listen is paramount. It is one thing to be able to accurately recite your organization’s position on any given subject. It’s another to shut up and listen to what your counterparts are saying and to learn where their needs and vulnerabilities lie. A true solution has to be a solution for everybody. There can be no winners and losers. If one loses, everybody loses. 

Municipal Water Leader: Do you have any additional advice for water managers? 

Pat Mulroy: The challenge that water managers are facing is that a change is occurring. Although some new facilities are going to be critical, we won’t be able to just build our way out of the problem. Those days are over. It is going to take a lot of diplomatic and people skills, which can be learned and developed. The leader of a water organization should make sure they have people skills, or they will not be able to succeed, whether with their workforce or their neighbors. Times are changing rapidly and challenges are becoming increasingly complex. Things you never had to worry about before now are everyday, in-your-face challenges. 

Municipal Water Leader: Who is your favorite Bureau of Reclamation commissioner, and why? 

Pat Mulroy: I’ll start by saying that my favorite secretary of the interior was Bruce Babbitt. Without him, the original interim surplus agreement never would have come together. He was the decisive figure in changing the culture. He had been the governor of a lower basin state, Arizona, and was also a water lawyer, and to understand the politics and the law around water as well as he did was critical. I butted heads with him for almost the entire 8 years of his term, but nobody after him was able to accomplish what he did. 

Every secretary organizes the U.S. Department of the Interior differently. Sometimes, Interior’s lead representative is the assistant secretary for water and science and sometimes it is the commissioner of Reclamation. In deciding who was most influential you have to look at individuals in both of these positions. First and foremost, I would point to Mike Connor. He did a fabulous job shepherding everyone through the 2012 Mexican treaty minute. Given all the challenges Brenda Burman had in the Trump administration, she did a great job. They come from different parties, they come from different political starting places, but they’ve both done great work. 

Bob Johnson will always be one of the commissioners I admire most. He had so much experience, and he had the perfect temperament. You couldn’t rattle Bob if you tried. He maintained an even keel no matter how turbulent the waters became. 

The one quality all these individuals shared was that they understood the relationship between the federal government and the states on the river. They could prod and push the states to an agreement, but they could not unilaterally decide the course of the river. It is one area where there truly is a structure of shared power. 

Pat Mulroy is the former general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District and of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. She can be contacted on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/patricia-mulroy-a4b17617a/.