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Water Lines: Water czar calls for basin-wide citizenship

Hannah Holm
WATER LINES
Free Press Weekly Columnist

Last Friday, the former head of the water authority serving Las Vegas, Nev., electrified a crowd of Colorado water managers with her passionate and eloquent call for strategic collaboration amongst all who rely upon the Colorado River.

Pat Mulroy, now with the “Brookings West” think tank based at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, told participants in the Colorado Water Congress summer meeting in Snowmass, Colo., that it is time to expand our notion of citizenship beyond our towns and states to the entire Colorado River Basin.

Mulroy’s definition of the basin extends from Cheyenne to Denver and Tucson to Los Angeles, encompassing not only the river’s natural drainage, but the cities and farms outside the basin that draw on its waters through tunnels and canals. She pointed out that what happens in any part of this vast network affects every other part. And given that Los Angeles gets 50 percent of its water from the Colorado River and 50 percent from rivers and pipelines to the north, she argued that keeping Colorado Basin communities whole would ultimately require solving seemingly intractable water disputes in the drought-ridden state of California.

Noting the raft of news stories that appeared this summer, when Lake Mead dropped to levels not seen since it filled 80 years ago, she took issue with the much-repeated statement that Las Vegas is most at risk as lake levels fall. She pointed out that once the city’s new intake is finished next year, at an elevation of 860 feet, Las Vegas will still be able to pull water from the reservoir even when water levels drop below 900 feet — at which point no water will be able to flow beyond Hoover Dam to California, Arizona or Mexico. Repeating the notion that the Lake Mead problem is primarily a Las Vegas problem could lull the public in California and Las Vegas into thinking they don’t have to do their part to reduce consumption in order to boost lake levels.

Citing successful negotiations among the seven states that share the Colorado River Basin and Mexico on how to share surpluses (wouldn’t that be nice!), shortages, and return water to the delta in Mexico, Mulroy sounded optimistic that it will be possible to enact the conservation and management measures necessary to keep Lake Powell and Lake Mead high enough to forestall crisis. The stakes are high. Besides the millions of faucets and millions of acres of farmland on the line, the federal government might step in if the states are unable to keep the system working. Congress might even step in …

Having raised the specter of the Congressional bogeyman, Mulroy called for working diligently in good faith to preserve our communities in a way that makes sense while respecting the motivations of others working to do the same for their communities. In my favorite quote of the talk, she pointed out that you can’t find out others’ motivations “by talking to yourself!”

This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, and to let the roundtables know what you think, go to http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter. You can also find the Water Center on Facebook at Facebook.com/WaterCenter.CMU or Twitter at Twitter.com/WaterCenterCMU.


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