Can Las Vegas grow without limits in a drought?

Abraham Lustgarten, a top-notch reporter for the public interest site Pro Publica, a couple of years ago wrote the toughest story on fracking ever, in my limited experience.

Here's the money quote from that piece from 2012:

…in interviews, several key experts acknowledged that the idea that injection [of oilfield wastes in underground wells] is safe rests on science that has not kept pace with reality, and on oversight that doesn't always work.

"In 10 to 100 years we are going to find out that most of our groundwater is polluted," said Mario Salazar, an engineer who worked for 25 years as a technical expert with the EPA's underground injection program in Washington. "A lot of people are going to get sick, and a lot of people may die."

Lustgarten's story won a number of awards, and was nominated for the biggest award in environmental reporting. Now he's shifted his focus to water in the West, and this week published by far the most critical story I've seen on Las Vegas water chief Pat Mulroy.

Mulroy is a legend among water experts, and much admired for her ability to talk tough and get results, be it "wet water" for Las Vegas, or conservation from that city. But Lusgarten is not impressed. He takes her on for never once daring to challenge Las Vegas' central creed: development.

…an examination of Mulroy’s reign shows that, despite her conservation bona fides, she always had one paramount mission: to find more water for Las Vegas and use it to help the city keep expanding.

Mulroy wheeled and dealed, filing for rights to aquifers in northern Nevada for Las Vegas, and getting California to use less water while her city took more. She helped shape legislation that, over her time at the Water Authority, allowed Las Vegas’ metropolitan footprint to more than double. She supported building expensive mechanisms with which to extract more water for the city’s exploding needs – two tunnels out of Lake Mead and a proposed pipeline carrying groundwater from farms in the east of the state. Not once in her tenure did the Authority or the Las Vegas Valley Water District she ran beneath it reject a development proposal based on its use of water. The valley’s total withdrawals from the Colorado River jumped by more than 60 percent on her watch.

Yet even last summer — staring at the effects of growth and drought on the reservoir, where once-drowned islands were visible for the first time in as much as 75 years — Mulroy apologized for none of it. She bridled at the idea that Las Vegas or other desert cities had reached the outer edge of what their environments could support.

“That’s the silliest thing I have ever heard,” she said, her voice rising in anger. “I’ve had it right up to here with all this ‘Stop your growth.’”

It's a great story, and raises the question: How many California communities have dared to limit their growth, based on their water supply? Any?

Can't really accuse "the Water Witch" of short-sightedness and hypocrisy, of course, if she is only doing what every other thirsty community in the West is doing as well.

An example? How about growth in Phoenix, from l960 (in brown) to today (in orange). 


From an interesting and interactive set of graphics that goes with the Killing the Colorado series.

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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