McCain Says Colo. Water Compact Should be 'Renegotiated'

The suggestion by Arizona Sen. John McCain that the Colorado Water Compact be 'renegotiated over time' was astonishing, Gov. Dave Freudenthal said at a recent news conference in Casper.

"I was absolutely astonished that anyone running for president would suggest this. Now, he's also from Arizona, and the lower Colorado River Basin states have wanted to reopen that compact for years. They have only one thing in mind when they say 'reopen' and that isn't to give more water to upper basin states."

In an interview with a Colorado newspaper, McCain said the compact between seven Western states doesn't address increases in population or changing water needs.

"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," McCain told the Pueblo Chieftan. "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."

Freudenthal said McCain's statement was surprising.

"I found it fairly astonishing, and of course, his staff then was backpedaling fast enough to go around a circus ring three times. I think what it suggests is that not everyone in the West shares Western values."

U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado said he would actively oppose opening up the compact, since Colorado and other upper basin states would likely lose in any renegotiated deal. He said the move would only happen "over my dead body."

Freudenthal said the issue of water allocation in the West is incredibly complex:

"We have, in this region, really difficult water allocation systems that have been put in place. Some were negotiated, like the Colorado River Compact, and some are by court decree like our relationship with Nebraska over the Platte River.

"But I don't think his suggestion was premised on the idea that he'd like to have the upper Colorado River Basin states keep their water - quite the contrary."

The Governor said the states named in the compact recently discussed new ways to work together on the challenges brought on by drought.

"The thing I thought was odd about it was that we've just been through a fairly lengthy set of discussions between the states in which we developed the manner and means by which we were going to deal with drought," he said. "So it struck me as incredibly inappropriate, right after we've been through these negotiations, for Sen. McCain to announce that it should be renegotiated. To some degree I think we'd be better off with someone who had never heard of the Colorado River Compact than somebody who has a predisposition about reopening it to the benefit of the lower basin states."

Freudenthal said water agreements in the West have only been forged after long, difficult negotiations that spanned decades.

"These relationships between the states with regard to the allocation of water, they're not quite of Biblical proportions, but they're pretty severe and they are hard-fought. If you want to head into those, shall we say, 'difficult waters' -- nobody wants to head into them unless they're going to get something out of it. And in fact, what the lower basin states want is a bigger allocation of water from the upper basin. And for a state like Wyoming, that's a very serious problem."

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