Minnow dispute simmers as Congress eyes spending

By Thomas Hargrove
Albuquerque Tribune Reporter


WASHINGTON - The fight over Rio Grande water rights and the endangered silvery minnow will come to a head next week as House and Senate negotiators resolve differences in a spending bill for federal energy and water projects.

Both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill expect Sen. Pete Domenici will succeed in his bid to insert language into one of the annual federal appropriation bills mandating that legal requirements to protect the minnow "have been met" and that water deals made by the City of Albuquerque and other governments are exempt federal court action to protect the fish's habitat.

"We expect that this amendment will remain in the (appropriations) bill with no, or only minor, changes," said Chris Gallegos, spokesman for Domenici, an Albuquerque Republican. After all, Domenici, as chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, will be the lead senator during the House/Senate negotiations, Gallegos said.

Domenici infuriated environmental groups when he attached language - called a "rider" - into the appropriations bill intended to nullify a June 12 ruling by a panel of judges from the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals that federal authorities must consider threats to the minnow when releasing water along the river.

"The rider is destructive. It alienates the parties, when we should be talking to each other in a spirit of compromise, rather than having to fight a rider," said Bob Sulnick, Campaign Manager for the Alliance for the Rio Grande Heritage.

"A rider is not the way to go. Washington can impose new dictates on us, but if that happens, the fighting will continue somewhere else," said Richard Barish of the Sierra Club.

Barish called on New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson to lead negotiations between all parties to "find solutions to these problems that work for everyone." Richardson has told Republican lawmakers that he at least supports their efforts to lessen challenges to New Mexico's water contracts. But he won't be actively campaigning to overturn the court ruling.

"He has spoken out in favor of this. But right now he will let the process work out, both in legislation and in the court challenge," the governor's spokesman, Gilbert Gallegos, said last week.

Shortly after the 10th Circuit's decision, Domenici said he would look for a "legislative vehicle" - some major piece of legislation pending in Congress - to which he could attach language to overturn the court ruling. He settled on the appropriations bill, partly because he had strong oversight of spending on all energy- and water-development related matters.

Senators routinely approved the spending bill on a 92-0 vote Sept. 16 with Domenici's minnow rider untouched. The House in mid July approved by a 377-26 vote its version that included language by Rep. Heather Wilson, an Albuquerque Republican, that also protected city water contract deals.

But House and Senate conferees must iron out hundreds of differences, both great and small, between the two bills. Domenici's rider is on a matter so local might easily be overlooked were it not for the senator's considerable seniority and political clout.

"He's not infallible, of course. But he's been around long enough to make sure this (the Rio Grande rider) is approved," a Democratic staffer said last week.

Chris Gallegos said Tuesday he expects the conference committee meetings to begin next week and to take several days.


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