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Combating climate change and water scarcity in the U.S.


As drought continues to wreak havoc in California and the American west, the impact of climate change on our water is become increasingly apparent. Pat Mulroy, a senior fellow with the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings and a senior fellow for climate adaptation and environmental policy at UNLV’s Brookings Mountain West, discusses the water scarcity issues that have developed over the last few decades and the realistic future of water in the U.S.

Alarming future of water in the U.S.

In her video, Mulroy highlights the urgency of this problem for future generations, arguing “to simply turn your head and say it’s not going to affect us is insanity.” She believes that “we take water for granted,” and that “Ben Franklin was right. You learn the value of water when the well runs dry, and human behavior has replicated that time after time after time.”

Responding to a water crisis in Southern Nevada

Mulroy who has been called the “water empress of Vegas,” served as general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) from its inception in 1991 until her retirement in 2014. She also served as general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District and the Governor’s chief negotiator on the Colorado River.

During her tenure at SNWA, the region faced a huge crisis when one of the worst droughts in the history of the Colorado River hit the region. The drought limited the snowpack in upper Colorado and the amount of water runoff available to the region.

Mulroy discusses the main challenges brought by that drought, specifically Lake Mead’s falling water levels.

She says that “between Lake Mead and Lake Powell, you have over 50 million acre feet in storage when they’re full. So to have them both going down to quarter capacity is a pretty scary proposition. The loss of water in that reservoir system has been enormous. Go look at the bathtub rings, they’re scary.”

To combat this problem, she enacted a series of drastic measures that were aimed at driving down residential use to stem the crisis including: banning grass in front yards; putting in water waste ordinances; putting the community on a watering schedule; and even putting covenants on the property.

Is water a human right?

While we all recognize and identify ourselves as citizens of a community, state and of a nation, Mulroy says we never identify ourselves as citizens of a watershed.


“Water is a basic human right, because you need it in order to live. But what you don’t have a basic human right to is that that water is pumped from great depths in Lake Mead treated to a very safe standard and then pumped 2500 feet to your front door to where all you have to do is turn on the tap. That infrastructure costs money,” she explains.

“In your capacity as a human being, if you believe it’s a basic human right, take your bucket go to Lake Mead knock yourself out take as much as you want.” However, she argues that “if you want it treated and delivered at your house on a guaranteed 24/7 basis then you have an obligation to help defray those infrastructure and operating costs.”

Listen to Pat Mulroy’s recent Brookings Cafeteria Podcast on the American West’s water crisis »

The findings, interpretations and conclusions posted on are solely those of the authors and not of The Brookings Institution, its officers, staff, board, funders, or organizations with which they may have a relationship.

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