Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose
by Emily Green
Saturday Apr 28th, 2012 3:10 PM
Posted on | April 6, 2012 |
A new report from the NRDC is reminiscent of a Soviet-style Southern Nevada children's book praising Las Vegas water manager Pat Mulroy.
Publication this week of “Ready or Not: An Evaluation of State Climate and Water Preparedness Planning” by the Natural Resources Defense Council offers a good example of what happens when lobbyists are charged with assessing the very policy that they had a hand in developing. Las Vegas water manager Pat Mulroy becomes a climate hero and California becomes a nationwide leader in climate-ready water policy, a ranking prominently reported today in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Lest anyone mistake skepticism about the NRDC report as an endorsement of climate change denial, let it be said up front: Climate change is fact. What prompts this post isn’t any difference of opinion with the NRDC about the utter urgency of climate change preparedness, or even any over-arching disagreements about the need for high-level water planning to actually trickle down into active policy. It’s incredulity at the rankings. If a state that turned Owens Lake into a salt bed, that led the West in destroying the Colorado River estuary and is well on its way to finishing off the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta gets a top ranking for water management in the face of climate change, it must be asked: What merits a fail?
The NRDC’s enthusiasm for California water security policy amounts in many ways to a pat on its own back. It lobbied hard for the legislation that the new report congratulates for, among other things, mandating reduction of urban water use by 20% by 2020. What the report doesn’t mention is that lobbying by urban water authorities ensured that the reduction could be set against such a high use point that it’s not really 20% from the date of the bill.
Moreover, since the goal was set, conservation programs in cities such as Los Angeles have lost both publicity and cash while the bonds supporting the most progressive elements of the bills are stalled, possibly doomed. Anyone who attended the January public meeting in Pasadena laying out the goals of the Delta Stewardship Council’s draft environmental impact report would have witnessed a succession of Southern California water agency reps reading speeches into the record as to why they should not have to adhere to the Delta Plan’s most progressive prescriptions. It’s an autonomy thing.
Meanwhile, when it comes to our neighbor Nevada, while the new NRDC report is damning of state policy, it has this to say about Las Vegas’s Southern Nevada Water Authority:
In contrast with the lack of climate change planning at the state level, the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) has conducted substantial planning for water supply challenges due to population growth and drought conditions related to climate change. The agency is a member of the Water Utility Climate Alliance (WUCA), a group of large water utilities focused on addressing climate change implications for water resources management. Formed by seven water and wastewater utilities in southern Nevada in 1991 to cooperatively manage water resources in the Las Vegas Valley, SNWA since its inception has placed a high priority on water conservation and has adopted aggressive conservation policies, such as prohibiting turf installation in new residential front yards, limiting days and times for landscape watering, and mandating water budgets for golf courses. These measures in conjunction with incentive programs like the Water Smart Landscapes Rebate Program, which pays property owners to replace grass lawns with water-efficient landscaping, have helped to reduce consumptive use by 21 billion gallons a year from 2002 to 2008 in spite of a population increase of 400,000. In preparation for declining water levels in Lake Mead, SNWA has begun construction of a third intake shaft. The nearly 0 million project, scheduled for completion in 2014, will establish an intake at an elevation of 860 feet, ensuring that SNWA maintains the capability to withdraw from Lake Mead as its level drops. To diversify water supplies, SNWA has also banked water locally through aquifer recharge and in agreements with California and Arizona and is pursuing in-state groundwater rights acquisitions.
The SNWA’s own PR department couldn’t have been more generous. What the NRDC fails to explain is that conservation in Southern Nevada started as an accident. In 1989 the SNWA’s founding general manager Pat Mulroy was hand-picked by a gaming industry lobbyist expressly to flush what soon proved to be runaway development on steadily released public land located in the driest parts of the driest state in the nation. The plan developed between Mrs Mulroy, the Nevada congressional delegation and the gaming and construction industries was dependent on pregnant expectations of getting more water out of the Colorado River, not necessarily using less. Radical outdoor conservation only became policy after 2002, when sudden and dramatic drought on the Colorado dashed all hopes of river surpluses.
The NRDC seems equally unaware that the SNWA was formed only after Mrs Mulroy dangled the carrot of a massive haul of rural groundwater before a spangling of small, regional Clark County water companies. It is an abiding mystery why the NRDC never objected to her proposal for one of the most elaborate and potentially damaging interbasin transfers in the West, whose proposed pipe extended 300 miles north and targeted valleys either side of the Great Basin National Park. When I asked NRDC water analyst Barry Nelson about it in 2007, he said, “We don’t study it.” The NRDC was busy with the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta, he said. Heavily tapped by Southern California after collapse of flows on the Colorado River, this northern Californian estuary was already widely considered to be a national disaster in waiting.
However, while not studying her policies at all closely, the NRDC did at the time know Pat Mulroy. It had co-hosted a climate change meeting with the SNWA and even published Mrs Mulroy. Then as now it seems likely that the NRDC’s see-no-evil attitude toward the SNWA has less to do with Mrs Mulroy’s marvelous foresight and progressive policies and more with staying in the good graces of a certain other resident of Clark County: US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
In the new report, the NRDC calls for support of the Water Infrastructure Resiliency and Sustainability Act of 2011, a plan to create a federal pool of money from which cities can borrow to upgrade their respective water works. Mrs Mulroy and Sen Reid both support it. Helping water agencies borrow federal money to gird for climate change is vitally important, and this is in no way a call to oppose it. However, it is a caution against being suckered by self-serving revisionism on the part of the beneficiaries and a strong urging to read it with extreme care. Those of us who believe in sound town planning, particularly for climate change, may not concur that the solution is runaway development of a gambling town in the hottest heart of the Mojave.
On another front, as the NRDC grabbed headlines with its gimmicky rankings, the US Environmental Protection Agency recently published a draft strategy plan for how to address water policy in the face of climate change. To read it, click here or on the cover above.