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Know the West

Domenici clobbers cooperation on the RioGrande


New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, R, wants to give more money — nearly $13 million annually — to a five-year-old program dedicated to endangered species on the Middle Rio Grande. He also plans to put the Middle Rio Grande Endangered Species Act Collaborative Program under federal authority and trim its membership. But not all the members think those changes are good for the river.

The program aims to protect the silvery minnow and the southwestern willow flycatcher. Its strength has been the consensus decision-making of the group’s diverse membership, says Kara Gillon of the Alliance for the Rio Grande Heritage, a coalition of environmental organizations. Now Domenici wants to cut the program from 21 to 14 participants, leaving it stacked with state and federal agencies. Domenici staffer Erik Webb says the change will help the agencies work together more effectively.

But Gillon and other non-governmental members are concerned that local knowledge will lose out under the new plan. And fisheries biologist David Propst, of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, is worried about the money.

Most of the bill’s funding would go toward implementing a controversial U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plan — rewritten in 2003 by agency bureaucrats — that allows the river to dry each year after June 15 (HCN, 8/2/04: An icon of the Rio Grande has all but vanished in the wild). Only about $5 million is earmarked for leasing water, and that may not be enough to keep the river flowing, warns Probst. "I think you need to look realistically at the situation, at limited resources," he says. "The answer to the problem is ‘keep the water in the damn river.’ "