"Hello, I'm John McCain. I'm from Arizona and I'm here to take your water." It's a line the Republican presidential candidate has reportedly used as an opening joke at appearances in Colorado, a state that doesn't take too kindly to suspected water thieves. But after McCain told the Pueblo Chieftain that the Colorado River Compact, which governs the allocation of the river between Colorado, Arizona, and the five other states in the watershed, "obviously needs to be renegotiated," the Obama camp went into hyperdrive trying to convince Coloradans that the man from Arizona was never really joking. Colorado governor Bill Ritter denounced McCain's remarks on an Obama-organized press call, emphasizing that renegotiation would almost certainly reduce Colorado's share of the river's water. A McCain p.r. flak has since "clarified" his boss's statement, but re-winning the trust of Colorado voters may be about as easy as getting water to flow back uphill.

That's a shame, because McCain's suggestion is by no means absurd on its merits. True, he failed to mention that the seven Colorado basin states recently negotiated a plan for how to deal with extreme droughts—an omission that calls into question whether the Western senator spends any time keeping up with Western issues. But it's also true that a lot has changed since 1922, when the Colorado Compact divided the river's water more or less equally between the "upper basin" and "lower basin" states, and 1928, when the Boulder Canyon Project Act divided the lower basin's water between Arizona, Nevada, and California. Nevada had only 77,000 residents at the 1920 census, and it got the rights to just 300,000 acre-feet per year, about 4 percent of the river's water. Now it has a population of 2.5 million, the vast majority of which lives in the Las Vegas metro area. Las Vegas is desperate for water, and if it can't get more from the Colorado, the alternatives aren't pretty.

If there's a fatal flaw in McCain's suggestion, it's that none of the seven states—not even Nevada or Arizona, which have the most to gain—have shown much interest in renegotiating the compact. They worry that negotiations could descend into expensive, time-consuming lawsuits—lawsuits that, due to the interstate nature of the dispute, would have to be argued before the Supreme Court. And the states, unlike McCain, have a sense for staying out of trouble.

--Rob Inglis, High Country News