McCain in hot water out West

So far in this election cycle, John McCain has been able to laugh off most of his environmental blunders. He’s gotten away with flip-flopping on drilling and ethanol, with claiming that “truly clean technologies don’t work," and even with calling for a gas-tax holiday. But his latest gaffe may prove harder to shrug off: speaking with the Pueblo Chieftain, McCain called for western states to renegotiate a 1922 compact that allocates water from the Colorado River.

That may not sound like a big deal, but water rights are a political third rail out West; McCain’s decision to wade into the debate could cost him dearly in Colorado, a battleground state where he’s currently running neck and neck with Barack Obama.

Under the Colorado Compact, downstream states - Nevada, California, and McCain’s home state of Arizona - get 7.5 million acre-feet of water each year; the rest is split between Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming. That was fine in 1922, when 16.5 million acre-feet of water flowed through the Colorado River; in the past decade, though, the river has reached that level only once. The average annual flow these days is just 11.7 million acre-feet.

In December, the seven states agreed to an interim deal to share the pain of temporary water shortages; still, it’s unlikely that the Colorado River will return to 1922 levels anytime soon. In that sense, ironically, McCain is right that some sort of rethink is likely to prove necessary. But it’s extraordinarily naïve of the senator to voluntarily entangle himself in the West’s water wars; after all, any renegotiation of the Colorado Compact would inevitably favor the more populous downstream states, while outraging everyone north of Lake Powell.

That means that any serious effort to renegotiate the Colorado Compact would lead to an inter-state legal fight and probably a lengthy Supreme Court battle. Western Democrats are already piling on: Colorado’s governor, Bill Ritter, called the plan “sheer folly;" Colorado Senator Ken Salazar said it “would only happen over my dead body." Even Utah’s Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr - a Republican and McCain backer - offered only muted support for McCain’s proposals. “It can’t be Washington that says the time is right to open the compact,” he said.

The real risk for McCain is that his water-grab boo-boo will stick in the craw of western voters, for whom water rights are a far more immediate and tangible issue than abstractions like ethanol subsidies or renewable-energy mandates. If that happens, the Arizona senator could find himself in hot water when polling day comes around.