George Will

LAS VEGAS -- In this city of histrionic architecture, the building that matters most may be the bland, low-slung headquarters of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. The general manager since the authority was formed in 1991, the elegant, no-nonsense Pat Mulroy, 52, is determined to prevent a water shortage from inhibiting the growth of this city that is dedicated to the proposition that inhibitions are sinful.

     She is dealing with a five-year drought, the worst in 100 years of record keeping, and perhaps -- tree rings suggest this -- the worst in 500 years. She also is dealing with reverberations from the day in 1877 when Thomas Blythe strode into the Colorado River near the California town now named for him, 100 miles south of the Nevada border, and claimed for California 9 million acre-feet of the river -- an acre-foot being about 326,000 gallons.

     Because of the principle ``first in time, first in right,'' California got an abundance. Then, in 1922, six other states -- Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico -- joined with California in the Colorado River Compact. Westerners say whisky is for drinking and water is for fighting over, but the seven states can do pretty much anything they can agree to, such as ``banking'' water underground to use in trading river entitlements. They cooperate to keep Washington from butting in.

     Today California gets 4.4 million acre-feet. Las Vegas' water needs are supplied mostly from Lake Mead -- down to 59 percent of capacity -- and, upstream from Mead, Lake Powell, now at 34 percent of capacity, its lowest since it started filling three decades ago.

     When Mormon settlers arrived here in 1855 the town was called Las Vegas Springs -- an oasis refreshing travelers from Salt Lake City to another community taking root in an arid place, Los Angeles. Today, 30 million people from Denver to Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Tucson, Los Angeles and San Diego -- almost a tenth of all Americans -- depend on the river's water. But agriculture sops up 90 percent of it. The sprawl of Phoenix onto agricultural land actually decreases water use.

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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