Bill has minnow, WIPP changes

The Albuquerque Tribune.


An energy bill approved by the U.S. Senate would eliminate some tests for waste being shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and prohibit use of San Juan-Chama water to help the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow.

The fiscal year 2004 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill was approved by the Senate on Tuesday. It now goes to a conference committee that will attempt to reconcile differences in the Senate and House approved versions.

The House version doesn't include the waste provision, which was added by Sen. Pete Domenici, an Albuquerque Republican. It would reduce the number of tests required to be done on low-level radioactive waste before it is shipped to the Department of Energy nuclear waste dump near Carlsbad. The Department of Energy requested the change.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a Silver City Democrat, and New Mexico environmentalists and the state Environment Department all have voiced concerns that the provision would reduce state authority over WIPP.

The energy bill was approved 92-0, Domenici said.

It also includes an amendment introduced by Domenici and Bingaman to prevent the Bureau of Reclamation from taking water imported from the Colorado River watershed and owned by farmers and municipalities to help the silvery minnow.

The senators drafted the measure in response to a ruling by a three-judge panel from the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

The appeals court upheld an Albuquerque federal judge's ruling giving the Bureau of Reclamation discretion to cut contract water deliveries to farmers and municipalities from Heron Lake and release water as needed for the endangered minnow. That discretion is tantamount to a directive because the Endangered Species Act supercedes all other interests.

"I am pleased that as this language has been studied that Senators deemed it be fair in addressing the specific concerns and problems we have in New Mexico," Domenici said in a news release.

Bingaman said the measure will provide certainty for water users.

"It's important that the provision remain in the final version of the bill," he said, adding that a long-term solution still must be found to reconcile water use among competing interests in the central Rio Grande valley.

New Mexico environmentalists from the Endangered Species Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife and the Alliance for the Rio Grande Heritage were disappointed that the rider to the energy bill was approved.

"The rider could severely hamper efforts to come to a made-in-New Mexico solution," said Liz Godfrey of the Endangered Species Coalition. "Many of the stakeholders in New Mexico's water debate are working hard to solve this problem in New Mexico through negotiations, rather than attempting a quick fix using legislative sleight of hand."


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