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Pat Mulroy Exit Interview: Can a Water Warrior Learn to Cooperate?

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By Mark Lubell - Posted on 04 February 2014

For over 20 years, Pat Mulroy has been the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, with responsibility for securing the water supplies for the Las Vegas metropolitan region. Over that time, she earned a reputation as a savvy and tough character in water politics, where she has been involved in many of the biggest issues at the local, state, regional, and federal levels. She is retiring from her position on Thursday, and the Las Vegas Review-Journal posted an interesting exit interview. There are some real gems in this interview, which I think are worth further elaboration.

On the drought, and relationships with CA: "The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California takes half of its water from the Bay Delta, which is from the Sierras, and half from the Colorado. We know they are going to lean heavily on the Colorado River this year. Well, I’m really happy that the relationships that we’ve forged with California and with the other partners are such that that won’t be a cause of acrimony, that we’re going to be able to work our way through it. Because the challenges are only going to get more daunting."

It interesting to see Mulroy's view that she has increased cooperation with California, ostensibly through multiple negotiations over the Colorado River such as the Interim Surplus Guidelines and other decisions. And now this cooperation is paying off, insofar that non-California interests will not raise as many issues if California pressures the CO river supply to ease state-level drought. I would be curious if SoCal water managers felt the same way, or if they feel that Nevada bullied them with legal decisions like the Quantification Settlement Agreement, which aims to ramp California's use of Colorado River to 4.4 maf.

On negotiating the Interim Surplus Guidelines on the Colorado River, and the role of Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbit: "The week before he left office, we signed the Interim Surplus Guidelines, and that was when I took a resource plan to the board with a 50-year supply from the Colorado River. We were able to overuse Lake Mead as long as it was above a certain elevation, and in those days there was zero probability that we would have a drought like the one we’ve been living through."

Note the terms "surplus" and "overuse". The year...2001! Really, a zero probability that there could be a drought?! I would have to do some historical research on when the climate science started coming out that showed the CO river flows are much lower on average than known in the 20th century, and the paleo-climate studies suggesting mega-drought. Maybe knowledge really has changed since then, because not even during the last wet year would any serious water analyst say there is a zero probability of severe drought. This year we have obviously drawn the drought card from the water deck. It was only in 2005--four years later--that CO river stakeholder signed the Interim Shortage Guidelines! Dealing with uncertainty (no such thing as zero probability...)in the face of climate change and extreme events is the clarion call of current water management.

On regretting the negative public reaction to an emergency rate raise: "...that whole disaster of 2012, when we had to raise rates overnight. It was the first time we had done it without … a citizen’s process, and there was no option; we had no choice but to do it, because we had to sell the 300 million (dollars) in bonds."

Here, she highlights the importance of a public process that is needed to gain acceptance for a rate raise. We saw a similar reaction in Davis, where some people thought the public process for approving the new water supply project was not adequate. There is some excellent long-standing research by Tom Tyler on fairness and procedural justice, that clearly demonstrates process matters. For example, when people think their views are heard fairly in a courtroom, they are more likely to accept a negative verdict. The same psychology is at play here, and it is clear that unfair policy processes can have real economic and political costs. Procedural fairness=more acceptance of costly policies.

On comparing Owens Valley to the Nevada in-state water project that seeks to secure new groundwater supplies in rural Northern Nevada; this quote is her view of Owens Valley: "It is not an environmental disaster area by any stretch of the imagination. I would have greater environmental concerns about the Salton Sea than I would about Owens Valley."

This one kind of blows my mind. Even as recently as 2013, Los Angeles and the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District have been fighting over air quality problems in the Owens Valley. To brush away the severity of this conflict and its continued political significance for California water politics is naive. Although she does have a point that the ecological problems of the Salton Sea are potentially greater.

On the possibility of renegotiating the Colorado River Compact to deal with the reality of the historical water regime: "Why go through the pain if you don’t have to? Think about how long that’s going to take, and at the end of the day, are you really going to be in a better place than you would be if you just worked within its parameters and use it as a foundational document?"

The Colorado River Compact is kind of like the "constitution" for the Colorado River. Elinor Ostrom showed how such "high level" institutions are incredibly difficult to change relative to "lower" level operational rules such as reservoir management guidelines and other institutions. Hopefully she is right here, that there is enough flexibility to operate within the constraints of the CO River Compact to make rules that are adaptable to this quickly changing situation.

And finally, on my favorite topic of cooperation and the future of Western Water: Look for solutions of mutual benefit. Do not start confrontations. Do not go to court. Do not pick fights you don’t need. Listen to what the needs of the others are so that you understand them. Do as much listening as you do talking. And always remember that if the system crashes, there will not be a winner left standing. Everyone will go down. There won’t be winners and losers. Those days are over.

This really is the true beautiful gem of the interview. Throughout the interview, she talks about regional, interstate cooperation not only for the CO River and the Southwest, but also for the Mississippi River basin. She references the role of empathy for supporting cooperation, and how cooperation is linked to the overall resilience of the system in the context of extreme events like drought. She implies that cooperation is less expensive than water wars. I wrote about this in another blog-- whiskey is for drinking, water is for cooperation. The United Nations agrees with this, and water cooperation has become a global phenomena. Of course, the skeptic hat must be kept on because water cooperation has become the common refrain and platitude of water management. Can we really "all get better together" and have "co-equal goals", or is this still a story of zero-sum games, winners and losers? Does the platitude of cooperation hide the real political conflict, and for that matter, disguise the self-interest of veteran water warriors like Pat Mulroy? After all, according to this interview, some of her early successes resulted from confrontational strategies. I hope that she is sincere, and really has learned the value of cooperation and the approach to decision-making needed to make cooperation happen. Put simply, can a water warrior learn to cooperate?

Regardless of your view on her, there is no doubt Pat Mulroy has been a very colorful and important player in western water politics. It will be interesting to see how her successor will carry on the show.