McCain’s Colorado River Gaffe Might Cost Him Key Western States

  • Published on August 21st, 2008

John McCain has again said something to cause his fellow western-state Republicans to wince at his political inexpedience and apparent naivete for the issue at hand. And even though the Senator has now recanted and begun damage control, Democrats are hoping that this one will cost him. Some even argue that the gaff was so severe, he may have just lost Colorado.


McCain told The Pueblo Chieftan last week that he wants to renegotiate the 1922 Colorado River compact to re-appropriate water from the upper basin states, like Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming, where the river originates and give it to lower basin states like California, and his home state of Arizona. McCain said:

“I don’t think there’s any doubt the major, major issue is water and can be as important as oil. So the compact that is in effect, obviously, needs to be renegotiated over time amongst the interested parties. I think that there’s a movement amongst the governors to try, if not, quote, renegotiate, certainly adjust to the new realities of high growth, of greater demands on a scarcer resource.”

“Over my cold, dead, political carcass,” said Bob Schaffer, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate. “The compact is the only protection Colorado has from several more politically powerful downstream states. Opening it for renegotiation would be the equivalent of a lamb discussing with a pack of wolves what should be on the dinner menu.”

John Redifer, political science professor at Mesa State College, said McCain’s position makes sense in light of Arizona’s needs, but not as a national policy. “I wonder if he is running for president of the United States or for something in Arizona when he makes those statements,” Redifer was quoted as saying in the Grand Junction Sentinel. “I’m really kind of surprised that someone running for president … that needs to carry the state of Colorado would make a statement like that.”

About the Author

is the founder of ecopolitology and the executive editor at LiveOAK Media, a media network about the politics of energy and the environment, green business, cleantech, and green living. When not reading, writing, thinking or talking about environmental politics with anyone who will listen, Tim spends his time skiing in Colorado's high country, hiking with his dog, and getting dirty in his vegetable garden.
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  • brian

    Well said Karl, that was a relevant and coherent statement, and not at all opinionated. I agree that the fed should stay out of affairs of states (at least for the most part), and if Mccain's statement had been that 'as his first act of presidency' he would do something about this issue, than that would be one thing. but simply stating that something needs to be done is no faux pa. anyway, I do agree that colorado should not be screwed out of their water in favor of Arizona, but the two factions should realize that they are all human beings, divided only by an imaginary border. We all need water, share.

  • WaterDiva

    Water issues are always simmering, especially in the West. A similar gaffe by Bill Richardson lost my support for his bid. Peak water is just around the corner, and unless we have solid, serious and proactive discussions and policies, water rich states will have politically powerful states putting big straws.

    This is already happening between Las Vegas and Utah. Look for more to come.

    Making this even more urgent is the idea of "selling" and privatizing water, recently mentioned by Mr. Pickens in Texas, and in a recent ludicous article in the Oregonian.

    It is time to stop off the cuff remarks, and put water at the top of the priority list.

  • Johnnie

    These issues will only increase over time…News of a tough choice being faced on climate change decision making in Australia’s Murray-Darling River right now


  • brian

    I stated I was voting for Ron Paul because I feared that if I only stated my opinion I would be mislabeled as a McCain Supporter. Also, Tennessee and Georgia are currently in talks to renegotiate the rights to the water flowing through the Tennessee river. So this is not a solitary case by any means.

  • Petch Petch took the words out of my mouth. Maybe Arizona wouldn't need so much water if there weren't so many dumbasses building water-hogging golf courses in the desert.

  • JimS

    This illustrates for you all just how "Good ol' boy" McBush is.

    And just so we're clear, that means that he will owe some biiiig favors to the guys that helped him get elected (should we be so stupid).

    Guys like Karl Rove, and George Bush, Dick Cheney, not to mention a litany of CORPORATE LOBBYISTS.

    THAT is what we mean when we call him "McBush".

    He is going to get into office and have soooo many people we don't want running our country ANY MORE insisting it's "payback time".

    Then he'll have to deal with a heavily Democratic Senate and House…He'll be crippled to do anything and what he does do won't even be his agenda.

    It will be his Cronies agenda!!

    So, Go McBush!! Can't wait for more McRove!!

  • allan

    So, how are they going to develop oil shale in western

    CO if they want to send more water downstream to AZ and CA? How much gals/day of Colorado River water is diverted to Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles?

    McSame sounds more communist than Obama if he think he can take water that isn't his.

  • Kipload

    Its stupid and idiotic comments, such as these, are the reason I cannot and will not vote for John McCain. If this is what Conservatism has become (a.k.a. Neo-Conservatism,) I want no part.

    My votes going to Bob Barr, and the Libertarian Party this year.

  • SteveM

    Just so that people from Arizona, Nevada, and California understand this, we in Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming understand that you need water. It’s just that it’s our water that falls on our states in the form of snow you moved to avoid ever seeing or feeling. And just like you people in California don’t expect that the government will come in and take the fruit from your trees and give it to us to eat, we don’t think it’s right that we should have to give you our water. It’s ours and not yours. If we want to dam it all up and keep it for ourselves, that should be our right. It’s not that we don’t like you or care about you, it’s that it’s our natural resource not yours. Funny, the Texans would never think in a millions years that it isn’t their right to charge everyone for their oil that they pump out of their ground. There is no earthly reason why the water that flows out of our mountains should be given to down streamers for free, none at all. And, frankly this goes for the people who drink from the Rio Grande, Platte, and Arkansas Rivers all of which start in Colorado. It’s our water. That’s all, and I’m sure we’d be happy to share more of it for a price. We’ve been giving it away for free for more than 100 years. It’s totally unfair and any reasonable thinking person who knows anything about water rights and mineral rights can see that Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming are all being ripped off by the rest of the West due to the compact rules that were established over 100 years ago. It’s down right blooming unfair and two-faced. Hey, Arizona, you want to give us copper in exchange for our water? Hey Nevada, you want to give us some of your silver in exchange for our water? We don’t raid your states’ resources, why are you allowed to raid ours? And why does John McCain, a patriot of this great country, think it would be ok to just take more of another state’s resources? Here’s an interesting tid bit, the Governers and Provincial Leaders of the Great Lakes States and Provinces of Canada met not long ago to sign a water treaty that would make it so they would collectively never agree to allow the fresh water of the Great Lakes be pumped out and sent elsewhere. Nice! Huh? Well, maybe it’s time for the governors of Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado to do the same with OUR water. If those states and provinces can claim the Great Lakes are theirs, why one earth is it any different for we of the Rocky Mountain West? It’s our water folks, not yours. And where you all come of thinking you’re entitled to it is a complete and utter mystery any more that you would be entitled to the Great Lakes Water. If our ancestors had been smart, they would have damed up all the water in our states and trickled it to you for a price. But they had no idea what was to come or that generations down the road you’d all believe this was YOUR water. I suggest you sincerely think about being nicer to us and being more grateful, and not wasting a drop of OUR water on anything. You want to live in the middle of a desert in the middle of nowhere, that’s your choice, but in no way are you even remotely entitled to any of our water.

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  • yep – this proves McCain isn’t fit. the right man for the office, Obama, would have said whatever would get him more votes – no matter what his real opinion was or what would be best for the most people.

  • Johnathan

    I’m sure the fact that Cindy McCain is in the beer business has nothing to do with his opinion. Do the research.

    If this man says something, as with most politicians, it’s because someone paid him enough money to spend time in a room with him telling him what to say so they could make more money. It’s the only reason our government works still. For the rich, by the rich.

  • I missed this gaffe. And I used to live in CA, where water rights were always in the news. Perhaps McCain was just having a senior moment, or maybe something is wrong with his brain, or his aides need to do their homework better.

  • Jenny Deeeson

    LOL, I still cannot believe that ANYONE is taking McBush seriously. He is such a total MORON.


  • Dan

    Mccain is totally right the 1922 Colorado River compact should be renegotiated. In 1922, the Colorado River was running at peaks highs, the early 20's being very wet years, dendrochronology records have shown this to be true. In 1922, we made the bad assumption that high flow of the river was normal, and we over allocated the river. Since then, we have learned that Colorado typically doesn't have that kind of water flow, and the annual flow has been decreasing over the years. Ultimately, we are taking out more water than we should be. Its sad to think that one of earth's greatest desert rivers doesn't even make it to the ocean. So yes we do need to renegotiate the compact, we need to give water back to the river. However, with the demand for water increasing in the west, do we really think the colorado river basin states will agree upon less water? I don't think so. Opening the compact up for renegotiation probably would be a bad idea: it wont be peaceful, and ultimately wouldn't return over allocated water back to the river.

  • Jon

    Yawn…this is just another liberal blog trying to smear McCain. They take a quote out of context and deliberately misinterpret it order to make him look dangerous. Just the like non-story about his '7 homes' which he does not actually own. They are owned by his wife and his wife's family, mostly as investments, and several are just condos.

  • colinnwn

    @Bill D

    It doesn't matter where the water comes from that is used on recreational facilities, you shouldn't water large areas of the desert for grass. Golf courses are absolute water pigs. I might be more accepting of ball fields which are generally no more than the size of one or 2 golf holes and support many more users. It is a disgusting misuse of resources where water is so valuable. That effluent should be treated the final 10% and recycled for POTABLE use in desert areas.

  • cattletracks

    MICHIGAN and the other Great Lakes States, YOU'RE NEXT!!! Wars will be fought over water, and here it begins!

  • Karl

    Stopover, if you believe that, then Obama is savvy enough to know the issues and how people feel about them. With McCain, however, it's plainly obvious that he's oblivious.

  • Jim

    Who cares if Colorado dries up and blows away as long as Arizona can have more golf courses.

  • Karl

    Just awesome. Once again, McCain has opened his mouth without thinking.

    I think the problem, Brian, is that he has publicly sided with one side of a long-standing struggle for resources. He doesn't intend on doing what is right by Colorado. He intends on helping arid states like Arizona exploit another state's resources. If you truly believed in Ron Paul's message, then you would know that Dr. Paul does not believe in using the Presidency or indeed the Federal Government as a force to meddle in the affairs of states.

  • Hardy

    We have had the very same feud in the east between my home state of Alabama and Georgia. We cannot begin a policy where cities are able to monopolize water resources to ensure unfettered growth indefinitely into the future. If California, Georgia, Arizona have such a desperate need for water that they would consider stealing it from their neighbors they they should be willing to switch to gray water recycling as well as desalination prior to stealing the resources of fellow citizens and (in the case of Alabama) endangering their lives by not guaranteeing there would be enough water to cool our nuclear power plants.

  • mojo_iv

    This shouldn't even be an issue for Californians — we should've put in desalination plants, like the ones they have in Iran, 20 years ago.

  • Why do people choose to live in places that aren't made to be sustainable anyway?

  • Lam

    ^Apparently Brian knows more than a state senator, governor and a polisci professor on this issue. Why do Ron Paulers need to announce who they voted for?

  • Joe

    I find it amazing that Arizona can mis-manage what little water it has, and expect Colorado to bail them out.

    This may cost McCain my vote. (I live in the SW and understand water conservation)

    I surely won't be voting for Obama, but McCain might need my vote.

  • Bill D


    While I appreciate the satisfaction of holding a knee-jerk opinion – and have many favorites of my own – the best ones are at least informed by facts.

    In western states recreational facilities like soccer fields and golf courses are typically watered with reclaimed treated and quite safe EFFLUENT.

    In other words, this is not potable water, but water that's being RECYCLED, already having been used for drinking and bathing and washing and the like?

    I'm not a golfer, but I'd sure like it if people who discuss life critical issues such as water use in desert states at LEAST understood the basics of how our water delivery system works.

  • Bill

    The Water will then be diverted from AZ to MX

    Mark my words…

  • Petch Petch

    Until there are NO GOLF COURSES in Arizona, I refuse to have any sympathy for their water woes.

  • Patrick

    ^And what happens when the bigger states get more say in the matter than Colorado? They get it.

  • brian

    I am no fan of Mccain. I voted for Ron Paul in the primaries. That having been said; I see nothing wrong at all with what Mccain said, he is completely right. Rather than feuding over who gets what water, it makes far more sense for the interested parties to peacefully renegotiate their arrangement, considering the interests of the parties have changed over the years. There is absolutely nothing wrong with renegotiation. No one is forcing the issue, and it should be done because it benefits the needs of the masses of people. It would be very silly for someone to take this one quote so out of context that they begin to believe this quote is anything the senator should be ashamed of. It was a perfectly lucid and coherent response to the question.