Two weeks ago, in a move he very quickly came to regret, John McCain told a Colorado reporter that the Colorado River Compact, which governs the river's allocation between the "upper basin" states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico and the "lower basin" states of Arizona, Nevada, and California, "obviously needs to be renegotiated." Because a renegotiation would almost certainly result in less water for Colorado, Democrats were quick to paint McCain as a greedy Arizona politician out to steal another state's water.
Now the water-grabbing accusations are running the other way. In a video from the just-released Colorado Senate race Youtube debate, Republican candidate Bob Schaffer accuses his opponent Mark Udall of wanting to "take all the non-navigable waters in Colorado and give them, put them under the authority of the federal government." Schaffer wants us to believe that this nefarious transfer, the details of which he does not illuminate, would upend Colorado's existing water-rights system and probably be the death of the state's farmers. Here's the video, which goes on about two minutes too long; the relevant section starts at 1:08.
What's Schaffer talking about? The federal water grab that he accuses Udall of orchestrating turns out to be the Clean Water Authority Restoration Act of 2005, which Udall co-sponsored along with 152 Democrats and 18 Republicans. The bill, which didn't pass in 2005 or when it was re-introduced with slight changes in 2007, would reassert the federal government's authority to regulate pollution in non-navigable streams. That authority, which has been a basic tenet of environmental law since the 1972 passage of the original Clean Water Act, has recently suffered two partially-successful Supreme Court challenges. Court decisions aside, it's an authority that's been more or less abdicated by the Bush administration, which in 2003 issued a directive ordering the EPA and the Corps of Engineers to treat "isolated" non-navigable waterways -- a class that includes many waterways in the West, especially seasonal streams and rivers that flow in closed basins -- as not subject to Clean Water Act protection.
The bill Mark Udall supported would have reversed this Bush directive. It's unclear how it would have destroyed Colorado's existing water-rights system, which seems to have survived the period from 1972 to 2003 during which federal authority over non-navigable waters was the law of the land. But I'm putting too much thought into this. Mark Udall is from Boulder. He wants to take our water and give it to federal bureaucrats, who will then use it to make organic soy lattes or fill the radiators of their Subarus. Anyone who suggests otherwise is probably just a dirty environmentalist.