Water Tempts Thirsty Voters in Colorado's 3rd District

Two men competing to take over a western Colorado congressional seat find themselves scrapping again over an age-old feud in those parts: water.

Whether it started out as a wedge issue or not, the tenuous water supply in the 3rd Congressional District — the area that covers almost half of the state and traverses mountains, ranch lands, farms and urban areas — has risen front and center to frame the debate between Democratic state Rep. John Salazar (search) and Republican Greg Walcher (search), a farmer and former state official.

"Water is the number one issue," said Salazar, the older brother of U.S. Senate candidate Ken Salazar, and a freshman Democrat in the state House. A potato farmer who oversees a 2,000-acre farm, Salazar said he has spent a lifetime fighting to keep water on rural lands and will not cede the issue to Walcher.

Salazar argues that Walcher is on the wrong side of the issue and often reminds voters of Walcher’s support for Referendum A (search), which lost a statewide ballot initiative in 2003. The $2 billion bond issue would have been used to fund centralized water storage projects in the midst of a drought cycle. Opponents say it would shift water from rural areas like the western slope in the 3rd District to growing metro areas like Denver and Colorado Springs.

Walcher, who served as Republican Gov. Bill Owens’ director of natural resources from 1999 to 2003, counters that Democrats have twisted the intent of the initiative to suggest that Walcher supported taking water away from the western slope counties.

"He’s trying to make last year’s ballot initiative an issue in this race, it’s ridiculous," said Walcher, who added that he has been fighting for Colorado land and water rights since he worked on the staff of Republican Sen. Bill Armstrong 25 years ago.

"What they’re saying is a bunch of baloney," added retiring 3rd District Rep. Scott McInnis (search), who has endorsed Walcher. "[Democrats] are using the water issue to shield John Salazar from his position on the issues … his very liberal voting record. It’s nothing but a distraction to disguise where he is on taxes and where he is on terrorism."

Democrats, of course, disagree.

"[Salazar] is running an incredibly strong race," said Chris Gates, spokesman for the Colorado Democratic Party. "We have the stronger candidate, who is stronger on the issues. [Republicans] have nominated the wrong guy. The contrast couldn’t be more clear."

By pushing the water issue, Salazar appears to be making some gains. A recent poll commissioned by KOAA-TV in Colorado Springs shows Salazar ahead of his opponent 52 to 40 percent. Unaffiliated candidate Jim Krug, a Pueblo businessman, is also running in the race.

Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report (search) said this race is in the "toss-up" column, mainly because the district is divided nearly equally between Republicans, Democrats and independents. District voters chose George W. Bush over Al Gore 54 to 39 percent in the 2000 election.

"Democrats think water is the most important issue, whereas Walcher believes he has a longer record of service dealing with water, but he also wants to talk about taxes and he also wants to talk about ideology and have the race decided on those things as well," Gonzales told FOXNews.com.

Salazar argues his recently announced water plan would allow farmers and ranchers payments in return for transfer rights to store water on their properties in the western slope and not lease the water downriver the way many are wont to do.

"I want to make sure we keep water in our communities. Basically, we're just offering another option for a farmer or rancher whose only opportunity for survival now is sending his water to an urban area," he said.

"I think it’s a great plan," Salazar added. "We’re offering the funding, not the federal control."

But Walcher says Salazar's water plan would place Colorado water under federal control.

"It’s the federal control of our water which is the greatest danger of all," Walcher said. "[Salazar] seems to have the impression — he’s brand new to these issues so he doesn’t know that leaders on both sides have fought federal control of our water for centuries — that federal money doesn’t bring federal control."

McInnis said Salazar has put himself "in a pickle" by suggesting government easements. "I think Salazar now wishes water isn’t the issue."

Walcher added that the real difference between him and Salazar is the two men's level of experience. Before his time in the Owens administration, Walcher served for 10 years as the president and director of Club 20 (search), a kind of chamber of commerce for 20 western Colorado counties.

"It’s experience — lifetime experience he doesn’t have — and it’s being on the right side of the issues and in touch with the voters of this district," said Walcher. "He’s too liberal for this district."

Walcher said he supports President Bush's tax cuts, helping small businesses thrive and staying tough in the War on Terror.

Walcher said he’s wary of federal intrusion and the "heavy-handed regulatory approach," particularly since the federal government owns much of the land in the 54,000-square mile district.

Besides water, Salazar is campaigning on the lack of affordable health insurance and prescription drugs for the people of the district, which has a 12 percent poverty rate among households.

He said he wants to accomplish this in part by creating new tax cuts for small businesses so they can provide health care for their employees. He also wants to bolster the high-tech infrastructure in the rural areas to lure new companies to the region.

"I think I have a proven track record; I have a record of being a moderate and pulling the middle," said Salazar, addressing the critics who say he’s too liberal. "There is no room for partisanship — conservative versus liberal — we need to stand up for the district."