Before weathering a storm of criticism over his willingness to renegotiate a major water conservation pact in the Southwest last month, Sen. John McCain toured the flood-ravaged town of Columbus Junction, Iowa, with its mayor in June. (Photograph by David Greedy/Getty Images
From offshore drilling (and Sarah Palin) to plug-in cars (and inflated tires), alternative energy has been the uncontested behemoth of environmental issues in the presidential campaign's homestretch. But when Sen. John McCain suggested renegotiating a key water conservation agreement last month, the ensuing political firestorm reminded voters just how important other "green" topics have become.
"I don't think there's any doubt the major, major issue is water and can be as important as oil," McCain told the Pueblo Chieftain after announcing his support for a rethink of the 1922 Colorado River Compact. "I think that there's a movement to ... adjust to the new realities of high growth, of greater demands on a scarcer resource."
Sen. Barack Obama fired back, hoping to court Colorado residents angered by McCain's implication that he would divert water resources from their state. "Opening the compact would pit the seven basin states against one another in extended negotiations, instead of facilitating cooperative efforts to address water supply challenges facing the arid west," read a statement posted on Obama's Web site. "I will respect the work the seven states have done and honor the Compact."
Scientific evidence leaves little doubt that America's fresh- and saltwater ecosystems are in dire need of protection: Recent studies indicate that climate change-induced droughts could threaten water supplies for up to 25 million Americans, and that global fish stocks could be wiped out by 2050. Meanwhile, a smorgasbord of assaults—Hurricanes Ike and Katrina not the least among them—have damaged miles of fragile Gulf Coast ecosystem. With help from analysts closely watching the preservation of water resources—and environmental advocates who were more inclined to be quoted for this article in PM's Geek the Vote series— we've unearthed the substance (or lack thereof) behind the candidates' promises.
Water ConservationAfter McCain's call to renegotiate the Colorado River Compact provoked a backlash from some Colorado residents, he stood down. "Senator McCain has no interest in reopening the compact," McCain supporter Mitt Romney said the following week. "He believes as I do that a compact that's been worked out between the governors and the states is the right way to go." Some environmental analysts insist that McCain's backpedaling might foreshadow his unwillingness to enforce water-regulation measures while in office. "Rural western communities that have preferential access to water are one of McCain's key constituencies," says Glen Barry, founder of Ecological Internet, a popular non-profit aggregator for environmental analysis online. "He's hurt his political chances there by calling for a re-examination of the compact. If he's unable to raise the topic of water rights without fierce resistance from his supporters, that doesn't bode well."
While McCain has so far taken a state-by-state approach to the water management issue, Obama wants to take water conservation measures nationwide. He has voiced support for utility pricing structures that would make wasting water a more expensive proposition: "Prices and policies must be set in ways that give everyone a clear incentive to use water efficiently and avoid waste." Obama also supports funding federal programs that would teach farms and businesses how to switch to more efficient water-use practices. "Obama wants the federal government to be at the table," says Robert Lawrence, the director of Johns Hopkins University's Center for a Livable Future. "He or the Environmental Protection Agency would be in there to make sure the regulatory structure protects the shared water supply from corporate entities that may not have the people's best interests in mind."
Despite the new spotlight on water as a campaign issue, it can be tough to draw definite conclusions about the candidates' water stances if you go by their recent Senate voting records. In 2007, both Obama and McCain abstained from voting on the Water Resources Development Act, designed to provide funding for water conservation measures.
Fisheries ManagementMcCain, who cites conservationist Teddy Roosevelt as one of his heroes, has often spoken of the importance of preserving natural resources like fisheries. "We are vested with a sacred duty to be proper stewards of the resources upon which the quality of American life depends," reads a policy page on his Web site. McCain's platform is not particularly specific about how he intends to help U.S. fisheries become sustainable, however, other than to mention plans to get the fishermen themselves involved: "A vibrant hunting and angler community is essential to supporting our state and federal game and fish agencies."
When it comes to choosing between global fisheries management and U.S. self-determination, McCain has shown signs of favoring the latter. He has said he would vote against the United Nations Law of the Sea treaty, which includes international measures to ensure conservation of fish stocks and limits the exclusive fishing and economic zones that any one country can claim. "I'd like to make some changes to it," he wrote on a Web site last year. "I think we need a Law of the Sea. I think it's important, but I do worry a lot about American sovereignty aspects of it, so I would probably vote against it in its present form."
Obama, on the other hand, has expressed his unqualified support for the Law of the Sea, and Johns Hopkins's Lawrence predicts that this commitment will translate into a more active approach to fisheries management. "If we ratified the Law of the Sea, we would in fact yield some national sovereignty, but the law also has language about drift-netting and taking a more ecological approach to fishing," Lawrence says. "This is a big difference between the two candidates." Obama also advocates planning ahead on the fisheries front: He supports proposals to devote billions of dollars annually to state game and fish agencies to help ensure that fish and wildlife survive trends in climate change.
Coastal and Wetlands ConservationIn the years since Hurricane Katrina ravaged Louisiana's wetlands, McCain has expressed concern that America's "no net loss" wetlands policy is not being achieved. "Rapid urbanization and poor water resource management continues to claim a considerable acreage of our delicate wetlands," reads his online policy outline. "Therefore, we must develop policies that will protect these important natural assets for the benefit of all. This means employing long-term strategies that will preserve sensitive areas like the Everglades and the Louisiana coastal marshes."
Obama has also endorsed a "no net loss" policy for America's wetlands—the difference is he's been more forthcoming about how he intends to achieve this goal. His stated plan includes beefing up the so-called "swamp buster" provisions of the Farm Bill, which would decrease agricultural subsidies for farmers who attempt to develop wetlands, and updating the Clean Water Act to specify that it protects isolated wetlands. In 2004, as an Illinois state senator, he co-sponsored an act that provided for the conservation of wetlands within state borders.
The potential sticking point, environmental advocates say, isn't the candidates' rhetoric—it's that they seem likely to let other concerns, such as shoring up fossil-fuel supplies, stand in the way of their conservation promises. "McCain has clearly decided he's making a big deal about drilling offshore," says Rob Smith, the Sierra Club's southwest representative. "Louisiana has oil and gas under its marshes, and when you go in there to drill, you're bound to spill something. There's no such thing as a clean drill rig." Extensive drilling of the type McCain advocates could do significant damage to existing wetlands, advocates argue, and Obama also lost some wetlands-conservation credibility when he said he would reconsider his previous hard-and-fast stance against offshore drilling. "My interest is in making sure we've got the kind of comprehensive energy policy that can bring down gas prices," Obama told the Palm Beach Post last month. "What I will not do is support a plan that suggests this drilling is the answer to our energy problems."
Despite this recent reversal, Lawrence thinks imperiled wetlands would fare better under an Obama administration. "McCain has been very much ‘drill now, drill here.' Obama has also said we need to meet short-term energy needs with coastal drilling, but he's likely to be a little more environmentally sensitive."