Betting on Conservation
Nov 22, 2023
Season 4 | Episode 6

Betting on Conservation

How Las Vegas, the city of excess in an unforgiving desert, is fighting to keep growing.

Las Vegas is a fantastical Disneyland for adults in the middle of the desert, famous for its fabulous displays of water — like the thousand dancing fountains of the Bellagio Hotel or the winding canals that recreate Venice at the Venetian Hotel. But surprisingly, it’s a city that has also become known for water conservation and innovation.

Most of Southern Nevada’s water supply — 90% — comes from the Colorado River, but its share is the smallest among the basin states, less than 2%. That became a problem when, in the mid-1990s, Las Vegas began growing quickly, adding more than 1,000 new residents every week and constructing the mega resorts and casinos it’s known for today.

Enter Pat Mulroy, the former general manager of both the Las Vegas Valley Water District and the Southern Nevada Water Authority. During her 25-year tenure as the top water manager in Southern Nevada, she would redefine conservation in the desert city and employ every tool at her disposal to acquire enough water for the thirsty city to continue to grow.

In this episode, we talk with Mulroy about the existential crisis that Las Vegas and other desert cities face, and how Southern Nevada has been able to cut its Colorado River water use by 31% in the past two decades, at the same time its population has exploded. Through her career, we’ll get a picture of one city’s fight to stay alive at whatever cost, and what that means for the trade-offs that we all may have to consider to keep living where we want to live.

Correction (Jan. 16, 2024): Pat Mulroy’s name was misspelled in a previous version of this podcast description.

Amy Scott: If you have 15 minutes and about $40 you don’t mind parting with you can take a ride on Colorado River water.

Amy Scott: So Marcello, and you’re from Sicily.

Marcello Sellati: Palermo.

Amy Scott: Palermo, oh. Marcello Sellati my guide is steering the boat. Actually it’s a sleek wood gondola with red upholstered seats.

Marcello Sellati: I’m going to sing for you, ready for some music?

Amy Scott: I’m totally ready.

Marcello Sellati: This is called Volare, means to fly. (singing)

Amy Scott: As we’re floating along the glow of the sky changes color, turning from a pale buttery orange to a dusky shade of purple.

Marcello Sellati: You’ll see up here now the skylight changed to sunset. See that?

Amy Scott: Oh, yes. Does this feel authentic to you?

Marcello Sellati: It does, it does Bella.

Amy Scott: We pass a gelato stand a winding Venetian style alleyway. Also a Banana Republic, a Tommy Bahama. We’re on Colorado River water inside a recreation of the Venice Canals in the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. That’s why this boat ride sounds like we’re in a mall. Seems kind of weird to be on a canal in the middle of the desert. Am I right?

Marcello Sellati: Above a casino. We’re on the second floor.

Amy Scott: Right? We’re on the second floor in a canal, in the desert.

Marcello Sellati: 216,000 gallons of water above above the restaurants in Casino.

Amy Scott: Wow. 216,000 gallons. Hope the floor is strong. It might feel I don’t know ridiculous, indulgent, wasteful to use precious Colorado River water for such a spectacle. But like many things in this city of illusions all is not as it seems. So where does the water come from?

Marcello Sellati: It circulates so they do a good job of you know conserving.


Amy Scott: I’m Amy Scott. Welcome to How We Survive a podcast for Marketplace about people navigating solutions to a changing climate. This is Episode Six: Betting on Conservation.  Las Vegas is a fantastical Disneyland for adults in the middle of the desert. But it’s also become the place for water conservation and innovation and understand how we’re going to sit down with the woman who reshaped water politics in Las Vegas, and arguably the American West. And through her career, we’re gonna get a picture of one cities fight to stay alive at whatever cost and the tradeoffs that we all may have to consider to keep living where we want to live. Spend any time talking about water in the American Southwest and you will hear one name come up again and again.

Man 1: Pat Mulroy

Man 2: Pat Mulroy

John Matthews: I’m sure you’ve heard her name a lot. Pat Mulroy.

Amy Scott: Pat Mulroy was the top water manager in Las Vegas for 25 years.

John Matthews: She was the most powerful water manager in North America.

Dave Roberts: And she is a bulldog.

Matt: She’s hell on wheels.

Amy Scott: Pat was the general manager of both the Las Vegas Valley Water District and the Southern Nevada Water Authority. The agencies that deliver water in the southern part of the state to millions of people. She retired back in 2014 and now runs her own consulting firm. But she’s still involved in water and has been ever since she got her unconventional start. How would you sum up your career in water in just a couple of sentences and then we can go more in detail.

Pat Mulroy: Probably the best way to describe it is being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Always being there when everything is exploding imploding, going awry. And then, with the team finding ways to overcome that to allow Las Vegas to continue to exist.

Amy Scott: Back in 1985, Pat was working for the county court system when an opportunity fell into her lap.

Pat Mulroy: A friend of mine had just become the general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District and he offered me the number two job over administration so I took it. Those happened to be the very years in which growth in Southern Nevada exploded and our water use was increasing dramatically year over year.

Amy Scott: Most of Southern Nevada’s water supply 90% comes from the Colorado River. But when the Colorado River Compact the deal that divvied up the river among states was signed in 1922. The county that included Las Vegas only had a few 2000 people. So out of all the basin states, Nevada has the smallest share of Colorado River water less than 2%. But by the late 1980s, Las Vegas was growing and fast.

Mirage Resort Las Vegas Coming Soon (1989): Fantasy becomes reality, when a mirage appears on the Las Vegas Strip.

Amy Scott: The Mirage the mega resorts opened in 1989. With its exploding volcano and 20,000 gallon fish tank. It signaled the beginning of the opulent strip we’re familiar with today, which includes a New York City themed roller coaster, and a half scale Eiffel Tower. And in the midst of all that growth with groundwater stores already depleted from over pumping, water was beginning to run out.

Pat Mulroy: Conservation was not on anybody’s mind at the time. And things went sour really fast, the various entities began to declare war on one another competing for that last drop of water.

Amy Scott: At the time, the region’s water was managed by seven different agencies who were all at each other’s throats for that precious water. Things got so bad Pat’s boss was out. And Pat, who was number two in Vegas water became number one in Vegas water in the hopes that she could somehow bring people together.

Pat Mulroy: So, I became General Manager of the water district in 89. First thing was to create some form of unity, and heal the wounds in Southern Nevada.

Amy Scott: Pat gathered up all the fighting agencies into one big one, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, and Pat was the boss. In the mid 1990s, Clark County was adding more than 1000 new residents every week, knowing the region would need more water to sustain that growth path went to work looking for new sources of water and negotiating better terms for Nevada.

Pat Mulroy: We were able to amend various contracts with the federal government which opened up opportunities for new resources for Southern Nevada. And then we spent the better part of the 90s negotiating with our neighbors on the Colorado River.

Amy Scott: For example, Nevada was able to work out a deal to bank excess water in Arizona that it could then take out in the future. And perhaps approach and style made some waves. So I’m very curious how you feel about the nickname the water witch where did that come from?

Pat Mulroy: That probably came early on in the 90s. When I was rather aggressive in trying to rattle some of these other states, and we had actually put ads in the Denver Post, seeking to buy Colorado River water that was in use in Colorado and move it downstream to Las Vegas.

Amy Scott: As far as we can tell, not much came of these ads, but they really riled people up.

Pat Mulroy: So yes, I was the evil witch who was going to steal everyone’s water. And my staff gave me a broom for Christmas. I thought that was hilarious. So it didn’t doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

Amy Scott: It strikes me that there’s probably a little sexism going on there. Were you in a pretty male dominated field.

Pat Mulroy: That is the understatement of a lifetime. When I started, I went to my first Colorado River water users conference, I walked into my first session of the conference, I had my newly appointed General Manager had my badge on, my name, my title, this elderly gentleman comes over to me taps me nicely on the shoulder and he says, ma’am, spouses lounges down the hall. And I said, Thank you. I’ll tell my husband. I mean, it was brutal.

Amy Scott: After a while though, some other women started showing up at those meetings.

Pat Mulroy: So when Maureen Stapleton got the job in San Diego, and Arizona, had a female director of water resources. Rita Pierson. Now we have some numbers. And we just loved giving the men a hard time they’d go in the bathroom, if they tried to have secret meetings, they’d go to the men’s room. So we started grilling the girls room. Drove them crazy. I never took it seriously it was you had to. It’s generational. It’s cultural. So I took it with humor and a grain of salt and just help try and move the needle.

Amy Scott: So Pat was able to navigate the waters of Colorado River politics and negotiate better deals. meals and more water for Las Vegas. And her legacy is evident on the Vegas strip of today where human ingenuity and excess are on full display. So, we’re standing in front of the Bellagio Hotel, there is a giant lagoon. And showgirls and people walking around with giant daiquiris were part of a crowd surrounding a giant pool of water waiting for a show every 15 to 30 minutes throughout the day. 1000 fountains shoot water hundreds of feet into the air Oh yeah, dancing water. The Bellagio fountains were built in 1998 they require more than 22 million gallons of water.

Pat Mulroy: Now, the economic value of that fountain is unbelievable. I mean the number of tourists that stand in front of it that draw people to the Bellagio. It’s become the symbol for the city.

Amy Scott: And the water actually comes from private wells beneath the resort and gets recycled over and over. So yeah, the water that’s used in Vegas stays in Vegas. casino magnate Steve Wynn built the Bellagio on top of an old golf course.

Pat Mulroy: It’s one of the last old groundwater rights in Southern Nevada. Between that and captured gray water from the hotel. That’s what’s in the Bellagio fountain.

Amy Scott: Is it correct that you told Steve Wynn that if he wanted to have a big water feature he needed to recycle the water?  Oh, absolutely.

Pat Mulroy: That was when he was building the pirate exhibit that used to be on the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard in Spring Mountain when he built Treasure Island. And that’s when he agreed and double plumbed the Mirage and he doubled plumbed Treasure Island, built a wastewater treatment plant in the basement of a parking garage and use that water in the water feature.

Amy Scott: The Bellagio fountains lose a lot of water to evaporation every year, so it’s not waste free. And last year, the Las Vegas Valley Water District banned new outdoor fountains and water features even on the Strip. But Pat says today most of the water used indoors in Southern Nevada gets treated and reused.

Pat Mulroy: We recycle 93% of all our wastewater, if it hits the sewer system, it gets recycled.

Amy Scott: And they have an incentive to do that.

Pat Mulroy: We were able to negotiate a contract with the federal government whereby for every gallon of treated wastewater, we returned to Lake Mead, we can take an additional gallon out. So it’s a closed loop. You bring it in you use it, you return it, you can bring it back in again.

Amy Scott: But in the early 2000s, all these efforts would no longer be enough.  Was there like a moment where you realize we have to change tack?

Pat Mulroy: Oh, yeah. I remember that moment vividly. I’ll never forget the day. My deputy over water resources walked in and she said, we have a problem. We can’t produce a 50 year resource plan because Lake Mead will drop below the elevation at which we can take additional supplies.

Amy Scott: A 50 year resource plan is something that water authority had to submit to the state every year to show they had a plan to get enough water for the future. And in 2002, Pat’s team couldn’t do it. When the drought hit Lake Mead dropped to an all-time low, and the other states weren’t willing to give up any extra water.

Pat Mulroy: Everybody was starting to hunker down. So we had to turn on a dime, which is not easy to do.

Amy Scott: That’s after the break.

Amy Scott: All right, we just drove through the security station. They asked if we had any firearms or drones. We said no and they let us through. It’s an impressive ride from the Vegas strip to the Nevada Arizona border to the place that stores the lifeblood of Las Vegas Lake Mead, the reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam, and the cliffs are so red. It’s really dramatic. My producer Caitlin and I joined the stream of tourists who walk out onto the dam to gawk at this feat of engineering.  All right, we’re standing on top of the Hoover Dam looking down into Lake Mead.

Caitlin Esch: We’re 726 feet from the base.

Amy Scott: We can see the infamous bathtub ring the mark where the water once was. So we see like blue blue water traveling through this red brown rocky canyon with a big old stripe of white on either side where the water used to be. Believe it or not, this water is actually higher by a couple feet than it has been. But we’re still definitely in the midst of a drought.

Caitlin Esch: And see, stairs and a dock and there’s like a very big distance between the stairs on the water level.

Amy Scott: So those docks used to be floating, I presume.

Caitlin Esch: Yes, stairs to nowhere, stairs and then a long jump.

Amy Scott: This year had actually been pretty good for Lake Mead. The wet winter means it’s a bit higher than usual. But it’s still been trending downwards for the last 20 years. Lake Mead has a storage capacity of more than 9 trillion gallons of water enough to flood the state of Connecticut 10 feet deep, but it hasn’t had that much water since 1983.  I guess it was built to rise and fall but this is pretty darn low. After the drought hit in the early 2000s Las Vegas was worried the water levels would drop so low they would no longer be able to get water out of its intake tunnels. So Pat Mulroy, then the Southern Nevada Water Authority came up with a plan to build another deeper intake known as the Third straw underneath the lake, a giant 24 foot diameter concrete tunnel drilled way down into the earth three miles long. It was completed in 2015 and cost nearly a billion dollars. And it’s bought Vegas some time.

Pat Mulroy: From 2002, until present day, it has been a constant battle against Mother Nature.

Amy Scott: Another front in that battle is conservation, changing how people use water in Las Vegas. We started with $1 per square foot. Pat launched a cash for grass program paying customers to rip out their lawns. They now paid $3 a square foot.

Pat Mulroy: Today we have removed enough to go around the world one and a half times. So that’s how much sod has been removed.

Amy Scott: And set up strict rules for watering. She also started a campaign to change people’s behavior.  Can you talk a little bit about the PSAs that you did?

Pat Mulroy: Oh, you like those? Huh? Well, we wanted to be humorous and get people’s attention, right? And they got people’s attention. waters running down the street, right guys over watering his lawn was a little lady knocks on the door. She’s got a cane and she must be 90 years old. Can I help you when she tells him? He’s over watering? And he’s just standing there staring at her? Oh, so she takes him to the room to get his attention? Oh, man, it was pretty funny. I mean, we even had PSA announcements over every urinal at the stadiums, because that was our audience.

Amy Scott: But changing behavior wasn’t easy.

Pat Mulroy: We learned that never tried to tell people in Las Vegas to turn their phones off. They went berserk. absolutely berserk. It must be something about the sensation of hearing water when it’s 120 degrees outside that has a cooling effect. Also learn never get between a senior citizen and his car washing schedule. That’s not a safe place to live. So, we finally gave up after severe flogging and said okay, well you need to put a shutoff nozzle on HOAs.

Amy Scott: While Pat retired in 2014. Her legacy lives on the conservation efforts she set in motion continue. Water District employees now patrol neighborhoods, handing out warnings or even fines for watering violations that can get up to 1000s of dollars for repeat offenders. The legislature recently passed a law banning all non-functional turf in Southern Nevada by 2026.

Pat Mulroy: It allowed us over time to reduce our water use from we were well over our allocation on the river up 300,000. We were taking 325,000 At the time, and we have brought it all the way down to 225,000.

Amy Scott: That’s acre feet. And that means Southern Nevada has been able to cut its Colorado River water use by 31%, in the past few decades. At the same time, the area’s population has grown by more than 50%. Vegas has proven that it can grow for now. And it’s investing in new technology so that it can keep growing.  What would you say are the most exciting solutions that are in the works, that could really, you know, move the needle for for the Southwest?

Pat Mulroy: What we have is a future as a mosaic where you have various smaller pieces that come together to create a whole mother nature isn’t going to afford you that much time.

Amy Scott: Some of those pieces include banning evaporative cooling for any new commercial buildings systems that use a ton of water. The water authority is also limiting the size of residential pools and has cut down on leaky pipes by using high tech sensors and alert systems.

Pat Mulroy: I mean, our system when we can say we have a one 2% leakage rate, nobody in the country’s got that. Nobody.

Amy Scott: But still life in the desert has its limits. And the threat of Dead Pool looms when water drops so low in Lake Mead, that it won’t be able to flow downstream anymore, threatening not just the region’s drinking water, but its power supply.

Pat Mulroy: Conservation is not a be all end all solution. But we have got to start diversifying and supplementing waters of the Colorado River.

Amy Scott: In the face of the recent drought, the basin states did negotiate a new deal over the Colorado River to conserve enough water to stabilize the system for now. But it’s a stop gap that will have to be renegotiated in 2026. And more cuts could be coming for Las Vegas.

Pat Mulroy: This is the challenge that has been looming out there now for almost 20 years, over 20 years, which is how do you rethink and restructure this river use and how the river is managed in light of what is not just a drought but permanently changed climate conditions.

Amy Scott: All this makes me wonder, as I do every time I visit this city in the desert, how is Las Vegas even possible? They think from the outside it’s seen as this, you know party city, this never ending, you know, vacation in a place that gets what four inches of rain a year. I mean, when you’re lucky. You’re lucky. It’s it’s sort of mind boggling that it exists.

Pat Mulroy: My first counter is well, should Saudi Arabia be building new cities in the middle of the desert? There are desert dwellers all around the world. And given the huge increase in the human population. I’m not sure you can extract them from those desert environments. Las Vegas is economy tourism, Florida’s all tourism too, right? I mean, just because we’re a tourist economy doesn’t make us any better or any worse than anybody else. We all live in arid climates. And what it means to us is that we have to completely rethink how we manage water resources. I think we’ve reached a point in this country between flood and drought, that no idea should be off the table. Right now. I think everything goes on the table, and everything gets looked at, we’re being left behind in the dust.

Amy Scott: For Pat, whose career was forged in drought. That means thinking big, like a groundwater pipeline project she backed that some argued was effectively stealing water from farmers in order to sustain cities. That plan has since been abandoned, or building an even bigger pipeline that would move water from the mid sippy River to the American West, One solution that no one seems to want to talk about. But to me, it’s like a neon sign flashing in the desert.  Do you think that there is an argument that growth needs to be limited?

Pat Mulroy: Okay, think of the socio-economic consequences of what you’re saying, all right, you start limiting growth in a massive way. What happens is those that can leave those that own the businesses, those that invest in this community will move out, the only ones that will stay or those that cannot afford to leave. Rather than come at it with saying, let’s try to artificially limit growth. The more productive conversation is how do you grow in this environment? What has to be foundational issues for people to live in this community, it’s always how you grow not if you grow, because unless you’re willing to somehow cap population growth. I don’t know how you stop people from living where they want to live.

Amy Scott: Even as Las Vegas has become a model for conservation, it still has a long way to go. Last year, its per person water use averaged 104 gallons per day, the water authority aims to get that down to 86 gallons by 2035. And if Lake Mead drops to critical levels in the future, it could start capping residential water use all that’s going to require some hard choices, because even if governments won’t stop people from living where they want to live, nature might. Conservation can only go so far. If people are going to continue living in the desert, we’re gonna have to find new sources of water. The good news is that there are some pretty good options, some more savory than others.

Desert Monks: The water that we get from the city of Scottsdale, this direct potable reuse water is so clean and fresh. Wow.

Amy Scott: And this is wastewater, right. This is coming from the sewer.

Desert Monks: Originally Yes.


Amy Scott: That’s next time on How We Survive. How we survive is hosted by me Amy Scott, Sophia Paliza-Carre and our senior producer Caitlin Esch wrote this episode with me. Other producers include Hayley Hershman, Lina Fansa, and Courtney Bergsieker. Help this season from Peter Balonon-Rosen and Marketplace reporter Savannah Maher. Our editor is Jasmine Romero. Sound design and original music by Chris Julin and audio engineering by Brian Allison. Special thanks to Jon Gordon. Our theme music is by Wonderly. Bridget Bodnar is director of podcasts; Francesca Levy is Executive Director. Neal Scarbrough is Vice President and General Manager of Marketplace. 10:20 in the morning we’re in the Venetian casino. Cocktail waitresses at work. I mean, I assume this is how you bet on black. Come on on there buddy. Oh, Black 17! We won 20 bucks!

Caitlin Esch: Oh my God, should we double our bet?

Amy Scott: No.

The team

Amy Scott Host
Caitlin Esch Senior Producer
Hayley Hershman Producer
Savannah Maher Reporter
Sophia Paliza-Carre Producer
Courtney Bergsieker Associate Producer
Lina Fansa Fellow
Jasmine Romero Editor
Chris Julin Scoring & Sound Design