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Sin City covets thy aquifers

COLUMN ONE

Vegas' drinking problem is Nevada ranchers' headache as officials look to tap groundwater in rural counties to slake a thirst for growth.

March 07, 2007|Bettina Boxall | Times Staff Writer

Baker, Nev. — WHEN rancher Dean Baker and his three grown sons gathered for their regular 6:30 a.m. coffee klatch a few years ago, the topic went beyond the usual cow-calf talk. Should they fight or sell out?

Three hundred miles to the south, Las Vegas' determined water czar, Pat Mulroy, was laying ambitious plans to pump rural Nevada groundwater to her booming city of dancing casino fountains and new housing tracts.

One branch of the $2-billion-plus pipeline project would reach into the high desert valley straddling the Utah border where the Baker family has ranched for half a century.

As Baker remembers the family meeting, it didn't last long. "It was unanimous, without any question." They would fight.

Battles over water in the West are always about something more. At their most elemental, they are about survival. As Baker sees it, the Nevada water war threatens to reprise the unhappy scene in California's Owens Valley, which dried up decades ago after Los Angeles drained it.

And, like L.A.'s legendary water engineer, William Mulholland, Mulroy sees the distant water as the key to her city's future. The struggle pits a neon-lighted big city against scrub-crusted cattle country, a tart-tongued immigrant against a slow-talking third-generation rancher, a vision of the New West against the values of the old.

MULROY is one of Nevada's most powerful public officials, a Democrat who is periodically mentioned as a potential gubernatorial candidate.

She is on a mission to make up for the historic slight her adopted state suffered when Colorado River flows were split among the seven basin states in the 1920s. At the time, Las Vegas was little more than a dusty railroad stop, so Nevada received the smallest river share in the lower basin. It is on that comparatively meager portion that the Las Vegas Valley relies for 90% of its water.

"The Nevada state engineer had no vision," Mulroy says, bristling at the long-ago snub. "And we're just going to accept that as our manifest destiny in a state where we're the economic hub?"

She leans forward in a big office chair, carefully made up and clad in a sharply tailored pantsuit. She is intense and emphatic. Her tone provides a glimpse of the tough, smart water boss known for blunt negotiating tactics.

After she became general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District, Mulroy consolidated her power in 1991 by persuading local water agencies to stop competing against one another and form a strong regional entity, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which she has since also headed. She found a powerful ally in Nevada's Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, now majority leader, who included a free right-of-way for the pipeline in a public lands bill.

Last year, not long before the Nevada state engineer held hearings on part of the groundwater proposal, Mulroy warned that if he didn't approve the pumping, growth in the Las Vegas Valley would grind to a halt within a decade.

She pointedly noted in a newspaper interview that the "governor can remove the state engineer and appoint a new one," a comment she later insisted had been taken out of context and was not the threat it appeared to be.

Colorado River politics have been compared to those of the Middle East, but without the guns -- an analogy that partly explains Mulroy's long staying power. Her youthful ambition was to work for the U.S. State Department.

She grew up in Germany, the daughter of an American father who was a personnel officer for the U.S. military and a German mother who survived three Allied bombing raids and went on to do housekeeping and translation for American generals.

Her father was a stickler for language -- she speaks without a trace of an accent -- and Mulroy always wanted to live in the U.S. She got her chance when a University of Nevada-Las Vegas dean who knew her program head at the University of Munich offered her a senior scholarship and a teaching assistantship to pursue a master's in German literature.

"That was my ticket," she says. "So I packed up all my belongings, and on Aug. 24, 1974, I landed at McCarran International Airport."

She arrived at night, checked into a motel and encountered her first round bed and mirrored ceiling. The next morning she peered out the window, expecting Sahara-like sand dunes.

Instead she found herself in the land of kitsch. "I was in shock. The whole thing was like an out-of-body experience."

Except for a brief doctoral stint at Stanford cut short by financial pressures, she has stayed in Las Vegas, first working for Clark County government and then the Las Vegas Valley Water District. She married a native Nevadan, with whom she has two college-age children.

"It just became home," says Mulroy, 54. "I had grown to appreciate its quirkiness and how different it is."

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