People who work closely with water czarina Pat Mulroy are not surprised by the news of her impending resignation. The story broke Monday afternoon in a short item blasted out by political analyst Jon Ralston. (I know what you’re thinking — why didn’t Mulroy leak the news to me instead?)
So far, I haven’t found anyone who knows her who is the tiniest bit surprised by the decision. I had an off-the-record conversation with an elected official a few days ago who told me that something was up with Mulroy, that she has had a faraway look in her eye for awhile now, that she’s been almost disengaged when it comes to water issues, seemingly unwilling to make the immediate jump to Defcon 1 when challenged or questioned. If you know the pugnacious Mulroy, then you know that is not like her at all.
I have probably written more words about her than just about anyone else, and I know she thinks it’s been some sort of personal vendetta, which is why she has declined to speak to me about water issues or water-related stories for the past few years. I also run into other people who make assumptions about why there have been so many stories and columns about water matters and about Mulroy’s stewardship of our two water agencies. The assumption is that I must hate her guts to write about her so often.
That is not and has never been true. I’ve always had grudging respect for Mulroy, given her lack of training or expertise in water issues or engineering back when she seized control of the Las Vegas Valley Water District and later pushed for the creation of the Water Authority. I also respect her for her ferocity, her sheer ability to scare the pants off of elected officials or federal bureaucrats, and most of all, her ability to seize control of an issue or discussion. For many years, few people in government have been willing to cross swords with Mulroy when she issued some sort of water edict, launched a new multi-million construction project or lavished her underlings with the most generous salaries in Nevada government.
And that’s where the rub has been for me. It always seemed like a bad idea for any one person to have as much power as Mulroy had. I am sure she can at times be gracious and charming, but that’s not what got her to the top. Rightly or wrongly, she has been viewed in the political world as the unofficial point person for the development and casino industries. Mulroy is still someone you never want to cross if you have any hopes for higher office.
During the last session of the Nevada Legislature, for example, it was major news when state Sen. Mike Roberson, R-Henderson, decided to take Mulroy on. Roberson introduced a bill that would put Mulroy’s agencies under the oversight of the Public Utilities Commission. As Roberson boldly noted at the time, there has been little oversight of the water agencies for a long time because Mulroy has always controlled — or intimidated — the elected officials who were assigned the task of making policy decisions about water. Instead, it’s always been Mulroy who told her elected masters what would be done.
Roberson’s bill never made it into law. After all, Mulroy has always commanded a small army of lobbyists at the legislature. Roberson probably knew it would be an uphill fight, but the fact that he would have the guts to even raise such a proposal, to publicly challenge the mighty Mulroy, was perhaps a sign that the good times were over.
It’s more than that, of course. For years, the water agencies escaped media coverage as well. They pretty much had their way with local reporters, who often took the endless stream of fluff cranked out by the authority’s nearly two dozen public information officers and ran the stuff almost unchallenged.
The most obvious failure has been the avoidance of reality when it comes to climate change and the preponderance of drought in this region. Our water agencies have walked hand in hand with the developers to build, build, build, even though we live in one of the driest places on the planet. I remember questioning the wisdom of this back in the 90’s, when we were already in the throes of a persistent drought. These days, Mulroy is praised as some sort of climate change seer because she finally embraced the fact that we live in a desert, but it came years too late and for reasons that have little to do with preparing to live within our means. Drought became an ally, a reason to pursue the ridiculous $15 billion rural groundwater folly — at a cost of a hundred million or so public dollars — even though she says the plan will only be a last resort.
It seems like the public has finally caught on to the fact that our water agencies have acted as enablers for the growth machine, and that we can’t possibly keep growing like a bat out of hell. Conservation groups and environmental activists have stepped up their criticism of Mulroy in the last two years. I suspect that this change, as much as anything, has made the job less fun, less rewarding for Mulroy. She now has a elected official or two who are willing to question her profligate spending. She has media folks who dare to examine her frequent foreign trips and exorbitant salaries for her loyalists. Soon, she will have a the general public and the business community up in arms when the new water rate hikes are formally announced. And, finally, she must know in her heart that the rural pipeline will never, ever be built.
Pat Mulroy has worked hard. She certainly has earned a break, though I suspect she will have no trouble finding employment if that’s the direction she chooses.
George Knapp is an award-winning senior investigative reporter for 8NewsNow.