“We have to adapt – I don’t care about the reason!” – An Interview with Pat Mulroy
As the water levels at Mead and Powell drop by the day, the sophistication and volume of Colorado Basin news coverage continues to rise.
With more audiences coming to understand the magnitude of the water security crisis, how do utilities and advocates more effectively communicate climate change adaptation messages and strategies?
In this interview we examine this question with Pat Mulroy, the storied former head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Mulroy notes that climate skepticism is on the wane, even as utilities must face the coming shortages with honesty, transparency, and significantly more complex planning.
You got climate change and the impacts on western water supply a long time ago. As you look at climate change and western water, how are things different for you now?
I’ve only been gone (from SNWA) since February, but from when we started getting really active and concerned, there’s far less skepticism. More people are accepting that climatically things are changing. They may disagree about whether it’s man-made – but we have to adapt and I don’t care what the reason is. More people are looking and taking climate change as one of their planning foundations, and doing dual planning. The frustration we had then still exists because the science between water and precipitation and temperature, still isn’t where it needs to be. So there’s a lot more science that has to get done.
While we’re waiting for that, we have to create a continuum for planning. You have a pretty good sense of what normal is and then anticipate the far outliers. You have to go to the least probable and know what you would do in that scenario. You have to get your head around it. You can’t dismiss it because A) the riskiness scares you to death or B) because current probability makes it unimaginable. You have to look it stark in the eye and see it as a journey. It’s not necessarily the continuation of climate change, it’s the rate at which it’s getting worse. We all expect these consequences, but the compacted timeframe in which they’re occurring is a big surprise. We thought it was 30-40 years in the future. No, it’s now.
Westerners have historically viewed drought as episodic and natural. Do you think that perspective is changing?
Absolutely. They have to be. I mean at least within the urban community I absolutely know they are. They’re taking it very seriously. But why would you not perceive it as episodic and natural considering the 100 years we just came out of? It was the abnormal and we very well might be walking into the inverse: the dry is the normal and the wet is the outlier. Not just drought but precipitation falling as rain and not snow. Everything we ever took for granted is changing before our eyes.
As you know the Water Research Foundation’s recent survey shows Americans see utilities as being highly trusted to do the right thing in responding to climate change and water scarcity. What’s the responsibility of utilities and how should they respond?
I think the single most important message from that poll is that utilities need to stay on message and they have to be brutally honest with their customers. That’s a cultural shift for us that’s been happening over the decades. It used to be “this is so complicated you can’t get it, so just stay out.” They can’t do it alone now. They need an engaged citizenry who can understand the issues, whether it’s water quality or conservation. They need the cooperation and participation to achieve the end goal they have to achieve. The honesty of that dialogue and the transparency is critical. For utilities, their burden is that much greater and that makes their responsibility that much greater. In terms of the credibility, and the trust that people have – now utilities are up on the pedestal, but if you fall it’s along climb back up.
What about when utilities face the small but very vocal minority of climate skeptics as they try to plan for these outlier events?
Stick with adaptation – do not let yourself get sucked into the religious argument. Acknowledge it’s politicized and that’s going to taint your vision, but it’s irrelevant at a certain point. It doesn’t matter whether it’s driven by manmade factors or natural factors, the end result is the same. And point to the experiences we’re already having. If someone wants to have a drought conversation, have it. As long as they get to the same place in terms of their willingness to act, who cares!
Internally you can use all that climate science as you look at the side boards of what possible futures your community is going to experience. If someone is conservative and doesn’t believe anything, you’re not going to convince them. You just say: do you want water to come out or your tap or not?
There are solutions that get at what’s needed in the long haul to address climate change impacts. Those solutions are multi-benefit and therefore complex and so no one sound bite will explain them to decision makers and the public. How do we talk about those?
First of all there isn’t a single sound bite because it’s not a single solution. It’s a mosaic and it has many different tiles, and they are different shapes and colors and come together as a whole picture. For the general public, you have to put it in the simplest and most pragmatic terms. Don’t delude them into thinking there is a single solutions. You may have to use some projects under some circumstances, or you may have to engage the entire spectrum. And you have to get customers used to the concept of variability. And the biggest problem – the utility of the future every single year will have to look at where they get their water, and it will vary. You may not need all or some of your existing infrastructure. And you may not want to use other pieces of your infrastructure for environmental purposes, for resting. Infrastructure will be used sometimes and not all the time. You need to be able to use what you have when you need to, and allow for recovery when it’s possible. That’s not an easy concept to grasp and it’s hard to finance. You have to uncouple projects from your refinance obligations, so we’re saying we will repay you but not tie it directly to one piece of infrastructure.
On reuse, the secret isn’t whether we reuse it’s what do we use it for. I can move very quickly to health problems from direct reuse. The last thing reuse needs is a public health crisis.
I think about the next big bug or carcinogen and how we don’t know what those are yet. So using it for agriculture where we end up eating or using it as direct potable causes me some consternation. The greatest benefit is for industrial and landscaping. Or putting it in a larger body where it dilutes or the indirect where there’s another treatment plan. That has real opportunity.
On conservation: it is already starting to take hold; it’s a generational thing. The next generation is going to have a different water ethic than mine had. Enough has been done to push it front and center. A lot will revolve around – how do you maintain quality of life and how do you use less water?
How do we build the political power/leadership to make them happen at a larger scale to convince the public and decision makers to make these investments today in cutting edge innovation?
The key there is the leadership has to be local because things only fall apart if one party feels disenfranchised. Because there’s so much less slush in the (Colorado River) system, when you go to the legislature and there isn’t one voice against it, it sails right through. If there’s a subject that’s bottom up, it’s this one. That’s why building the relationship with natural partners is the key. We would never have signed minute 319 or 2007 accords if we haven’t gone through 15 years of relationship building. But the more Colorado River decision makers get to understand themselves as a larger whole and develop a culture of working together, the next agreement can come about so much quicker. In 1995 there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that seven states would have permitted two representatives to negotiate on behalf of all of them. But that happened in Minute 319 and I hope it will happen again.
Pat Mulroy has been a leader in the international water community for more than 25 years. She serves as the Senior Fellow for Climate Adaptation and Environmental Policy at University of Nevada—Las Vegas’ Brookings Mountain West, a joint research and policy development center created by Nevada’s largest institute of higher education and the internationally renowned Brookings Institution. She also holds a faculty position at the Desert Research Institute, where she serves as the Maki Distinguished Faculty Associate. Mulroy is also a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.