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Conversations With Water Leaders: Pat Mulroy on Urban Water Conservation and Trans-Boundary Cooperation

united states, NV, LAS VEGAS

First in a series “Conversations With Water Leaders” conducted by OOSKAnews in association with Singapore International Water Week.

As part of the series of 1 on 1 interviews with global water leaders, Renee Martin-Nagle caught up with Pat Mulroy, General Manager of Southern Nevada Water Authority in the United States of America (USA) to discuss the dynamics of the water utility industry in the USA. With over 30 years of experience in the water industry, Pat shares her frank views on a wide range of water issues including conservation initiatives, collaboration between the water utilities and the private sector and especially the importance of innovation through embracing the use of technologies and “thinking outside the box.”

Hello, Pat.  Glad you could speak with us today.  You have been involved in water for 30 years, serve on the boards of the National Water Resources Association and the Water Research Foundation, and are a frequent speaker at water conferences.  What are the changes you have seen in water conversations? 

I think the big game changer is the emergence of discussions around climate change and the relative economic importance of water.  I mean, when I started, water utilities were invisible.  The dialogue was pretty low key and dominated by technical discussions; there was very little penetration into larger policy discussions.  I think the combined effect of what we’re living through as a result of changing climatic conditions, the emergence of a global economy and the ever-increasing number of human beings on the planet have caused water to come out of the shadows.  Around the world, people are starting to talk about water supply and the effects of climate change in a very different way.  

What are the crises that you see arising from the effect of climate change on the future availability of water?

I see an impending train wreck when it comes to being able to grow enough food for all the people around the world who are going to demand it, and then climate change wiping out those food supplies.  It’s such a global destabilizer.  In my mind there is real need to shake the body politic and say, “this is one of your greatest threats to security, this is one of the greatest threats to economic development of your country, and you’ve chosen to ignore it.”  We spend all of our time around climate change talking about energy production.  There’s no one silver bullet, no single technological innovation that will change everything.  So how do you build flexibility into a utility that is by definition pretty rigid?  I’m hopeful that when I go to Singapore for the Water Utilities Leaders Forum that the technology is a piece of it but that we engage in a much broader discussion. 

In a city like Las Vegas pharmaceuticals and other chemicals are probably present in wastewater.   What are some technologies that you are exploring with regard to managing water quality?

We are diligent in monitoring Lake Mead's water quality to ensure that urban activities do not compromise the water supply. Our scientists conducted much of the groundbreaking research related to pharmaceutical compounds and other contaminants.  Additionally, our drinking water treatment facilities utilize ozonation, which has proven effective against a variety of potential contaminants.

In 2009, the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) set a goal of reducing average water use by an additional 20 percent by 2035.  How will you achieve the reduction?  

At this point, we are on a trajectory to meet that goal through the continuation of our existing conservation measures and the impact of new "low water footprint" developments on the community's overall average water use.  Community education has been and will continue to be a critical element in our conservation initiative, which is built upon four pillars:  incentives, rates, education and policies.  Moreover, consumer education fosters an ethic of water efficiency that pervades the entire community and inspires residents and businesses alike to do their part.

SNWA has been instrumental in implementing incentives to reduce demand for water, such as offering water audit kits, paying $180 million in rebates to homeowners to remove grass from lawns, implementing turf limits and prohibitions, and other incentives.   Are there other initiatives that you are considering?

The initiatives we have undertaken to date, which also include mandatory watering schedules for customers and water budgets for golf courses, have done more than induce water savings. They have permanently altered the trajectory of water use in Southern Nevada. The code changes for new development that limit the use of turfgrass have dramatically reduced the water footprint of each new home and business from here forward.  We are also continually working to reduce our distribution system loss, which is already among the lowest in the United States.  One of the best sources for water efficiency has been the WaterSmart Innovations conference, which our agency hosts each year in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Alliance for Water Efficiency, and many other stakeholders. By sharing new products and best practices with our colleagues from around the globe, we both foster innovation elsewhere and identify potential programs that can be adopted in our community.

In order to arrive at the multi-faceted solutions that are required, should all the stakeholders be at the table?

Let’s define what we mean by stakeholders.  All stakeholders are not built alike.  You can have a stakeholder who has established himself or herself as a stakeholder not in order to find resolution but in order to obstruct.  So selecting the right stakeholders is just as important as throwing stakeholders around the table. 

What are some examples of stakeholders who can be obstructive?

There are [US] states where the culture is much more combative and whose leadership wants to pontificate more than they want to find answers.  The same holds true in the environmental community.  You have environmental groups that have a business model of going to court.  That’s how they pay their people, because judges will award legal fees every single time. That’s not the environmental group you can put at the table to find common solutions. 

The world has changed.  It’s changed economically; it’s tied together climatically.  What the US recognized [was] that Mexico has no ability to prepare for cutbacks on the Colorado River delivery level.  And so the exchange was – Mexico, we know that you need a place to store water.  If you will conserve water early, through on-farm improvements, through lining canals, through conservation efforts, then we will let you store that water in Lake Mead and use it as a cushion when you start taking cutbacks.  

What are the benefits to the parties in this trans-boundary water cooperation between the US and Mexico?

The US benefits in two ways.  One in that Mexico will now take shortages at the same elevations that we the US take shortages.  Second, during this period when the drought is deepening, all of us are buying water and sticking it in Lake Mead, so today Lake Mead is ten feet higher than it would normally be.  The other advantage goes to the environment. 

What are the environment benefits that will arise from the extra water stored in Lake Mead?

There are a couple of environmental groups, most notably the Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Fund and Sonoran Institute, that are going to help pay for those on-farm improvements in Mexico.  Now the water in Lake Mead will be used for experimental releases to the delta.  So when you look at the entirety of this, it was a pretty amazing combination of benefits that accrued to everybody. 

What are some of the areas that you think SNWA and other water utilities could collaborate with the private sector? 

I think that collaboration with the private sector is absolutely essential, and to the extent that development of new technologies will give us new mosaic pieces, then the private sector can be helpful by doing what they do best, and that is develop new products. But getting from the venture capitalist stage to the commercialization stage is very difficult, because water utilities have been extremely risk averse and are reluctant to test new approaches on a large scale.  I think that’s where we need to start getting out of our box.  

How can we get new technologies from the drawing board into large-scale practice?

No developer technology is going to be able to get a large manufacturer to buy their patent unless they know the industry has an appetite for it.  So one of the things we’ve done with AMWA is that we have partnered with Isle Utilities.  They have created technology approval groups in Europe, Asia and Australia.  Through AMWA we’re creating several in the US.  

How do these new technology approval groups work?

Isle has combed the world for technologies that they, as a water utility themselves, know are of interest to the business.  Utilities pay to participate in the technology approval groups to help Isle defray its costs.  So they bring technologies that have been through the laboratory stage and taken to the next step with venture capitalists and are now at the point where they are ready for commercialization and hook them up with utilities.  I think that’s a link in the technology development scheme that’s long been missing. 

Do you have any ideas on how to get people to understand that water is something they need to value?

For my generation, and probably to some extent the Gen-Xers [born early 1960s to early 1980s], that’s going to be very difficult until they’re facing a water problem square in the face.  Gen-Y [born early 1980s to early 2000s] is different.  They are much more in tune to a changing planet and to an environmental perspective.  My generation is getting so old that we’re not going to change.  Those with the longer term perspective, and, quite honestly, the characteristics of that generation -- I hold out a lot of hope that you can have a much different conversation with them.

What final message would you like to leave with our readers?

As the world experiences unprecedented stresses on its water resources and municipal treatment and delivery systems, there has never been a more poignant time to focus more acutely on the element that enables human life and economic prosperity.  Whether it is the need to examine policies impairing our ability to adapt, or the development of technologies that will allow us to survive, action is required now.

About Pat Mulroy: Pat Mulroy was a principal architect of the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) and now oversees the operations of the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the Las Vegas Valley Water District (LVVWD). She is president of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, for which she is the first woman and Nevadan to lead the association and is exceptionally active in regional and national water issues. Mulroy also currently serves on the Board of Directors of the National Water Resources Association, and on the Board of Trustees of the Water Research Foundation. Additionally, she was the first chairperson of the Western Urban Water Coalition and served on the Colorado River Water Users Association's Board of Directors.

Pat Mulroy spoke with Renee Martin-Nagle, a Visiting Scholar at the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, DC.