Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
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Bush guts silvery minnow money
WASHINGTON - The Bush administration's commitment to helping New Mexico solve its Rio Grande water problems came into question at a Senate Energy Committee hearing today.
The president's 2005 budget includes only about $5 million to restore habitat for the endangered silvery minnow, $9.5 million less than this year's appropriation, said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a Silver City Democrat.
Bingaman and his aides also noted that the $5 million for the Rio Grande is about 20 times less than Bush's spending proposal for the endangered sucker fish and coho salmon in the Klamath River Basin on the Oregon-California border, where last year irate farmers provoked a confrontation when their irrigation water was cut off to keep more water in the river for the fish.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton responded that the administration believes $5 million is adequate this year to fulfill the 10-year, $233 million plan for the silvery minnow laid out by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Committee Chairman Sen. Pete Domenici, an Albuquerque Republican, did not directly address the Rio Grande funding, but said the president's budget reflects "the lack of a significant water policy in the West."
Domenici urged Norton not let her department dismiss out-of-hand a proposal to try to transplant the minnow so that water for Albuquerque would not have to be diverted to preserve minnow habitat. Norton said the proposal is under study.
"There is no more important issue to the people who live on that river," said Domenici. "They would cheer if there was a way to save the minnow without losing the water."
Both New Mexico senators chastised Norton for not responding quickly to the committee's questions. Bingaman related that in September he sent a letter asking Norton to explain why the National Football League was allowed to hold a huge season kick-off rally on the National Mall, complete with large signs for commercial products.
In December he received a dismissive reply from a Norton aide saying they weren't going to charge Bingaman $16.70 for the cost of responding to his "Freedom of Information Act" request.
Domenici said Bingaman is not the only senator who has found the Interior to be unresponsive to their questions.
"I consider it your responsibility to see to that it ends," Domenici told Norton sternly.
Norton apologized to Bingaman and said she was instituting a new plan to track responses to congressional inquiries.
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