Domenici move in minnow case a credible threat to Endangered Species Act, enviros say

By Thomas Hargrove
Albuquerque Tribune Reporter


WASHINGTON - National environmental groups agree the plight of the Rio Grande silvery minnow poses one of the greatest hazards to the survival of the Endangered Species Acts in the federal law's 30-year history.

Widespread water shortages throughout New Mexico could endanger one of America's most powerful environmental laws.

"This is the most dangerous year I've ever seen for endangered species," said Brock Evans, executive director of the Endangered Species Coalition, a national consortium of environmental groups. "There are at least six different pending bills, not counting all of the riders to other pieces of legislation, that would repeal the act."

One of the greatest of those threats came Friday when Sen. Pete Domenici, an Albuquerque Republican, unveiled legislation that would rescind a recent decision by the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and generally reduce the authority of the Endangered Species Act to supersede water contracts, environmental leaders say.

"I am confident we will be able to beat this back," said Kieran Suckling, executive director for the Center for Biodiversity. "Domenici is leaping on an exaggerated, emotional situation. He is threatening to open a Pandora's box that will throw decades of federal water management law into chaos."

Domenici last week proposed legislation to stop application of the Endangered Species Act in seizing water intended for cities like Albuquerque and Santa Fe or for irrigation farming interests.

"The (federal appeal court's) decision pits the fish against everyone. My solution would uphold the rights of the human water user while also protecting the fish," the veteran senator said. "My plan is an effort to stop any radical interpretation of the ESA on the Rio Grande."

His bill would:

Decree that the habitat requirements for the minnow have been met, rendering the recent appeals court judgment moot.

Mandate that the San Jaun-Chama Project and other Middle Rio Grande water contracts supersede the Endangered Species Act.

Limit federal funding to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation if the bureau moves "to implement changes to Rio Grande water contracts."

"I believe the court did New Mexico a disservice by ignoring the ongoing cooperative efforts to meet everyone's needs on the Rio Grande, including the minnow," Domenici said. He vowed to "find a bill" that is moving through Congress quickly to which he would attach his legislation.

Congressional conservatives have long decried the Endangered Species Act and during the 1990s made dozens of attempts to attach amendments to necessary spending bills aimed at weakening the landmark 1973 law. But then-President Clinton vowed to veto any bill containing such language, effectively ending any serious attack on the environmental act.

"But now the Bush administration is backing any backdoor attempt to weaken the act, even encouraging them," Suckling said. Environmental leaders agree Domenici's status as a power broker on Capitol Hill makes credible his pledge to modify the Endangered Species Act, although his efforts in the past have failed.

"He is a powerful politician, but we would hope that he wouldn't be divisive like this," Evans said. "We think the silvery minnow is like a canary in the coal mine, warning us of the dangers during the dry years. What this really should all be about is the life of the river."

Perhaps just as dangerous as Domenici's political clout is the emotional issue of the genuine water shortages throughout much of New Mexico, environmentalists said.

"Everyone agrees that the Rio Grande is overdrafted," said Suckling. "More water has been contracted than, in fact, exists in the river. This debate implies that all of the water is going to the silvery minnow, which is insane. Albuquerque's population is exploding, and the water is being diverted to human use."

Suckling said the real issue is how to allocate inadequate water to a burgeoning population. The endangered fish has become an emotional symbol of a much broader


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