MY COLUMN: The water czar steps down

There never will be another Pat Mulroy.

No one will ever possess the unique combination of toughness, knowledge and indomitability, not to mention longevity, that Mulroy brought to her job as the water overseer of Southern Nevada.

I almost started that previous sentence with “no woman” but then I checked myself because that would diminish how important Mulroy has been, a truly historic figure who could have been a credible candidate for governor (she thought about it a decade and a half ago) and was a credible candidate for secretary of the Interior (she was on a relatively short list).

But her gender also is not irrelevant as she truly was a trailblazer for women in government, a role model for some and mentor to others, who navigated a sea where only good old boys were allowed to sail. Government and agency leaders such as former city and county Manager Virginia Valentine, city Manager Betsy Fretwell, airport director Rosemary Vassiliadis and Regional Transportation Commission chief Tina Quigley surely all have looked up to Mulroy during their careers.

All of those women were there Thursday evening at Southern Highlands among a marvelous array of people that came to bid farewell to Mulroy, who had been the face of the Las Vegas Valley’s water forays and, yes, wars for a quarter-century. There were old-time county commissioners Paul Christensen and Jay Bingham, the former county manager and gaming lobbyist Richard Bunker, ex-county Manager Pat Shalmy, developers, representatives of other state water authorities and more.

And, yes, there were women there who have succeeded by dint of their own skills and doggedness in this man’s world but also those who surely saw Mulroy as an avatar of female accomplishment, one who plowed a path that made it easier for them to follow.

I know that for some Mulroy will be defined by the perception that she was a handmaiden of development interests, that she enabled breakaway growth, that she did what the casinos wanted, with the apotheosis of this being the rural water importation project, pejoratively nicknamed “the rural water grab.” (We always had that appellation in the TelePrompter when we introduced her on “Ralston Reports,” knowing that she would be gnashing her teeth by the time the red light went on.)

Mulroy rebutted that presumption time and again, insisting she only met needs (and does anyone remember she caused a firestorm during the ‘90s with a proposed building moratorium?). If you want to blame anyone – if indeed blame is to be cast – for the grow-grow-grow mentality during most of her tenure, blame her elected bosses on the two agencies she ran, the Las Vegas Valley Water District and the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

You may have noticed, too, that Mulroy was never up for secretary of state. Her diplomatic skills were sometimes wanting. She called California’s Metropolitan Water District a rogue agency, and she chafed to the point of antagonism when environmentalists or media types criticized the importation project.

But a small state needed someone with Mulroy's qualities -- nay, Nevada needed Mulroy -- to do the fighting for the area with other, larger basin denizens, to earn the respect of critical players from Los Angeles to Washington, DC. Mulroy always believed in what she was doing, and she could back it up with a tireless work ethic and an encyclopedic knowledge of her subject. And she could be intimidating, which surely helped Nevada as it negotiated for fairness with other states.

Mulroy's frustration mounted during the last few years as the drought worsened, Lake Mead dropped and the County Commission’s dysfunction grew. Pat Mulroy is one of the strongest women I have ever known, who was better and smarter than most men. But even she could not defeat an even more powerful woman: Mother Nature.

I don’t think she is departing merely because she is losing that fight or is worn down by the political conflicts, domestic and otherwise. This is a woman who has fought many, many battles, mostly successful (remember the quarter-cent sales tax for water infrastructure) and a few not so (taking over the power utility).

It’s just time. She’s 60. She can enjoy her family. And she can go be a consultant and write think-tank papers and….relax. Sort of.

In her wake, Mulroy will leave a legacy that has kept the valley vibrant and enduring. The pipeline may never be built, maybe shouldn’t be built.

What Pat Mulroy has erected is a career that will not soon be forgotten, with more brickbats than thank-yous, perhaps. But when the history books are written, she will be considered one of the towering figures of modern Las Vegas, an exemplar for all who come afterward to follow, women and men.

(Image from UNLV.)