McCain gaffe on water rights could lose Colorado voters

Did John McCain signal the end of his Republican presidential run and launch his next campaign for the U.S. Senate in a phone interview with The Pueblo Chieftain last week?

During the interview on Thursday, McCain called for a renegotiation of the Colorado River Compact. Colorado has nine Electoral College votes, and McCain’s statements could have pushed Colorado voters one more step away from him in the presidential election. At the very least the senator from Arizona provided a wedge issue for the Obama campaign to exploit here and across the southwestern United States.

Colorado has a ton of experience with water grabs. In his attempt to show his Western water chops, McCain wound up betraying his allegiance to Arizona water politics instead. Many in Arizona have opposed the Colorado River Compact since its adoption, and McCain was just parroting the party line. His position will win him votes in Arizona, but, judging by the reaction from politicians on both sides of the aisle in Colorado, he lost at least a few here. Both Republican senatorial candidate Bob Schaffer and Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado reacted in terms of a fight to the death. Opposition doesn’t get much stronger than that.

Colorado water under stress
Renegotiate the Colorado River Compact? What were you thinking, Sen. McCain? This political season Coloradans are already feeling as though they are under siege from oil and gas developers and those hoping to exploit oil shale. Last week Coloradans witnessed the results of presidential policies you hope to continue — when the Bureau of Land Management leased the Roan Plateau — over the objections of most elected officials in the state. The catch is, Coloradans for the most part are not against development; we’re just hoping for responsible development. We’d like to be able to hook a cutthroat or two, or maybe bag that trophy elk, after the natural gas plays out. If oil shale is ever going to stop being the “next big thing” and actually help the nation toward a sustainable energy policy, it will require much of the water that is left to develop in Colorado. The same water you want for Arizona.

We’ve just come through a major drought, and eastern Colorado has been creeping silently back into drought for months now. Eastern Colorado depends mightily on water diverted across the Great Divide, from the Colorado River Basin, where you want to improve the Law of the River.

The Law of the River
By the early 1920s Los Angeles had already fully developed the water in its basin, but its population was exploding and it needed more water. The city subsequently dried up the Owens River Valley with an assist from the federal government. After developing water in the Mono Lake basin, it was eyeing the Colorado River, as were irrigators in Arizona and California.

The seven Colorado River Basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California) realized the need to set down rules for the development of the Colorado River. The basin states crafted the Colorado River Compact to allocate the river’s water equitably so that each basin state could develop their water as needed, on its own timetable, without a rush to put it to beneficial use. The doctrine of prior appropriation — the legal basis for most water development in the West — holds that someone who puts water to beneficial use first gains a priority on the same volume of water, from the same diversion, when it comes around again in another water year. The compact allocated the water to provide certainty to the states over time.

What would a negotiation look like in the 21st century?
On Friday during a phone interview, Chris Treese from the Colorado River Water Conservation District asked, “What would a negotiation look like in the 21st century?” To get an idea, we can review the recent agreement among the basin states over management of the Colorado River during low water years, since the agreement dealt with a small subset of the issues that would come up in an attempt to renegotiate the compact.

It took 18 months to get the agreement. Seated at the table were the basin states, of course, but unlike the days when the Colorado River Compact was hammered out, there were many more groups present, all with legitimate concerns. Native American tribes, Reclamation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, power authorities, water utilities, irrigators and more all wanted a say, and many were allowed input. The landmark agreement — signed by Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne in December 2007 — dealtonly with the issues during dry years. Environmentalists didn’t get any relief from the agreement regarding water for endangered species or for the protection of the riparian environment. Attempts to simulate natural river flows were also not part of the agreement.

So, Sen. McCain, would the environment have a seat at the table in a renegotiation effort? Lake Mead, Lake Powell and the other dams across the entire basin — too numerous to list here — have had a hugely negative effect on the natural health of the Colorado River Basin. The natural cycle of floods moving sediment around, supporting the fauna that evolved with the river, is gone for all time. A few programs, for example the Colorado River Endangered Species Program, have been pretty successful but depend both on the certainty of the Colorado River Compact and water in the mainstem.

A renegotiation would probably require prioritization of water uses, perhaps a hierarchy of needs. What crops to grow? Irrigation, industry or suburbs? Continued unbridled growth or restraints on growth? Would a new compact eliminate out-of-basin transfers? Thedrying up of farms will continue — in Colorado and Arizona — to provide water to the cities and suburbs. What do we do for rural farming communities? The issues are legion.

Now in damage control mode
What does McCain’s statement show about his qualifications to lead the nation?

His campaign is now in damage-control mode, assuring Coloradans that our water rights would be protected in any case. So we know that he is prone to shoot from the hip and, in a long campaign, make the mistake of robotically answering a question on water in a way that has probably earned him applause as he campaigned around Arizona. Write it up to the campaign grind.

On the other hand, a renegotiation of the Colorado River Compact is tactical. It might result from a serious analysis of water issues, but other ideas should be considered as well. McCain, as president, would not be able to make that call. He would be compelled to rely on others. A president should set policy, not tactics. Could it be that McCain’s faux pas betrays something about his management style or inexperience as a manager?

Sen. McCain, if you were going to be wrong about something, this was a lucky choice. Being out of touch on Western water issues won’t hurt your presidential run in most of the country. Colorado is on the electoral fence, but you can’t be serious about winning here now. I bet ears perked up in Las Vegas though. They don’t have the abundance of water that Arizona has, and they may see you as being on their side. Good luck in November.

And about that next Senate run. I think you’re wise to have started now.

Denver-native John Orr is with Denver Public Works. He is the author of CoyoteGulch.net, the preeminent blog on water and environmental issues.

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