The fight for water: Nevada taps Lake Mead and hunts for 'Utah' water

Published: Monday, May 14 2012 9:00 p.m. MDT

Casey Graham, a supervisor on the intake valve project, said this type of cement job has never been tried at that depth under water.

"It's been all about firsts on this project with lots of innovative stuff and six months of planning."

For Mulroy, putting in a third, lower straw is her only option in the high-stakes game of drought, and she's all in.

"I think it is critical for us to begin that construction now, build it today for future generations of Nevadans."

But that drive to secure water in Nevada has rankled Mulroy's neighbors in Utah.

Mulroy is a petite, steely whirlwind in the water world who has earned a reputation for forging an empire that is relentless in its caretaking of southern Nevada water needs.

"Her crowning achievement is her ability to solidify the southern Nevada water voice," said Ron Thompson, manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District in St. George.

In 1989, when Mulroy became the general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District, she was a young woman in an old man's water world.

At one of her first water conferences, she was kindly directed to the spouses' room, not where the business at hand was taking place.

"You've got to assert yourself if you want to be taken seriously," said her spokesman, J.C. Davis.

Assert, she did.

Out of the seven states that share Colorado River water, Nevada is by far the smallest player at the table, with 2 percent of the total allocation. California has nearly 14 times its share at 27 percent. Utah's river allocation is 11 percent, with 1,369,000 acre-feet of water from the Colorado. Nevada? It has 300,000 acre-feet of water.

When the water was divided up in 1922, Las Vegas was just a little railroad town. The water-sharing agreement was negotiated on Nevada's behalf by power brokers in the northern part of the state; southern Nevada was barely a thought.

Mulroy said she won't let that happen again.

By 1991, she had coaxed a coalition of water districts into the umbrella of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Today, when it comes to issues of the Colorado River and water in general, Mulroy is characterized by friends and foes as a formidable voice.

Nevada's paltry share of Colorado River water sent Mulroy on a mission to snatch up other sources, and she soon began hunting for unclaimed groundwater throughout the state.

Those applications for water in the eastern basins of Nevada have landed Mulroy and her water authority in the crosshairs of angry Utah groups who accuse her of dipping into an unlimited and uncertain resource to feed the "excesses" of Las Vegas. Mulroy contends Nevada has every right to its groundwater in its state. She says the withdrawals are sustainable and Utah ought to get its own house in order before taking shots at Las Vegas.

"They can't spell conservation in Salt Lake City," she fired back to Utah critics in a 2010 television interview.

The authority's efforts to get the water out of multiple eastern Nevada basins for a pipeline to Las Vegas have been fought in the courts, with Mulroy leading the fight.

One of her combatants is Paul Hejmanowski, an attorney hired by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to protect water that serves the Cleveland Rogers Ranch from being used for the Vegas pipeline.

"It is not whether but when those springs will go dry if that happens," he said of Nevada's drilling.

In 12 protests heard by the Nevada State water engineer that were specific to the ranch, the church successfully defended four of the applications, but lost on the other eight.

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