McCain’s Water Rights Mini-Scandal

By Beacon Staff

Amid the presidential campaign’s mini-scandal du jour – John McCain’s inability to say how many houses he owns – another potential gaffe by the presumptive Republican nominee is picking up steam on a signature issue of the Rocky Mountain West. McCain told a small Pueblo, Colo., newspaper last week he supported renegotiating a 1922 water compact between seven Western states (not including Montana). Western Democrats are pouncing.

McCain has since backtracked on his statement, but some in Colorado and other upper basin states are in an uproar that McCain’s call that the compact be “renegotiated over time amongst the interested parties” was a tacit call for more water to be taken out of the Colorado river for Arizona, Nevada and California, where development is exploding.

Even Republicans in upper-basin states – Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming – pointedly renounced McCain’s suggestion that more water should go downstream.

A few things strike me about the debate spurred by McCain’s water rights comments. The first is that this is an issue that won’t gain any traction nationally, because the issue of water rights is something folks on the coasts don’t understand at all; I sure didn’t before I moved here. By Monday it will be gone and forgotten, especially if someone announces their running mate.

And this is actually a substantive issue! I would love to hear the presidential candidates weigh in on water distribution in the West – even though it doesn’t require much federal intervention. Still, it would be fascinating to hear their thoughts.

I also don’t consider this a big gaffe for McCain. I think he took off his presidential candidate hat and put on his Arizona senator hat for a moment, and actually spoke on behalf of his home state’s best interests – regardless of whether it benefits Colorado. Operating in the best interests of the state they represent, occasionally at the expense of other states, is what states send their senators and representatives to Washington to do.

Finally, being from Arizona, McCain is supposed to have a strong command of Western issues, and some critics say he botched it here. But I sincerely doubt his opponent, Barack Obama, would have a nuanced position on whether the 1922 compact should be renegotiated either.