ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- A bill being considered by Congress would protect agricultural water rights in New Mexico in the event that increased Rio Grande flows are needed to protect habitats of two endangered fish.
Rep. Joe Skeen, R-N.M., inserted language into the 2000 Interior Appropriations Bill to protect farmers' water rights should federal officials increase the river's flow to save the silvery minnow and the blunt-nose shiner.
``There has been a significant amount of debate over the protection of habitat for these endangered fish,'' Skeen said. ``In my view it is the responsibility of federal government agencies to utilize the water resources allocated to them for habitat enrichment, and it should not come from the allocation of water users who depend on this precious resource for agriculture and municipal purposes.''
Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated 163 miles of the Rio Grande downstream from Cochiti Dam to the headwaters of Elephant Butte Reservoir as critical habitat for the silvery minnow. The recovery plan calls for populations of the fish to be stabilized within the Middle Rio Grande and reestablish populations in at least three other areas of their former range.
The designation means agencies, municipalities and farmers have to consult with Fish and Wildlife about any actions they might undertake that could affect the fish.
Conservationists say the river's flow can be increased without great harm to water users. But opponents to the recovery plan say rationing additional water for the fish would put a strain on cities and farms.
Skeen also claimed the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation violated congressional intent in earlier legislation when the agency attempted last year to take water from farmers to support stream flows for the fish.
Skeen said state law requires that junior water-rights holders, like municipalities and industries, be identified as the first to lose water if the federal government orders increased stream flows to protect the two endangered fish.
The House approved the Interior Appropriations Bill.
The bill also includes funding for several projects in New Mexico, including $994,000 for the Vanishing Treasures program to protect ruins and historical structures across the state; $524,000 for the Dexter Fish Hatchery; and $927,000 for the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge.
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