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WASHINGTON (AP) – The Senate voted Wednesday to consider factors beyond the welfare of threatened birds and fish in deciding whether to keep the lower Missouri River open to summer barge traffic.

The vote allowed lawmakers to avoid choosing between farmers who rely on barges to keep freight rates low and a budding tourist industry in Montana and the Dakotas that needs upriver lakes filled for summer boaters and vacationers.

The amendment to an energy and water spending bill would allow river managers to sidestep the Endangered Species Act by making changes other than those sought by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said its sponsor, Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo.

“This essentially frees us from the Fish and Wildlife Service’s directive that there should be spring flooding,” Bond said.

Next month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected to issue a new river management proposal calling for a more natural ebb and flow. No changes are planned, however, before the spring of 2003.

The changes are sought by the Fish and Wildlife Service, which says the current management has propelled two native bird species, including the piping plover, and a fish, the pallid sturgeon, to the brink of extinction.

Higher flows about every third year would trigger fish spawning and build sandbars. Lower flows each summer would expose the sandbars for birds to nest and create shallow water habitat for young fish and for birds to forage.

Downstream lawmakers fear the changes would ruin the barge industry, keep farm fields too wet for planting and increase the risk of devastating floods.

“It is just not fair to expose Missourians and other downstream residents to severe flooding, economic loss and potential environmental destruction,” said Sen. Jean Carnahan, D-Mo., a co-sponsor of Bond’s amendment.

The battle puts Bond and his supporters at odds with the new majority leader, Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

“Don’t talk to us about sacrifice; we know the sacrifice,” said Daschle, who said the government is spending $35 million to relocate homeowners along flood-prone stretches of the upper Missouri. “Yes, this is about the pallid sturgeon, but this is about a lot of South Dakotans living along the river who were told they were safe.”

Agreeing on the compromise after two days of behind-the-scenes negotiations, Daschle and Bond averted another showdown on the floor. Last year, Bond persuaded colleagues to pass an outright prohibition, and President Clinton vetoed the spending bill.

The House approved such a prohibition last month, but Bond said his language is better because it could keep the corps from seeking the changes at all. A House-Senate conference committee will decide between the two versions.

Environmental groups, meanwhile, disagreed with Bond on the effectiveness of his approach.

“This gives the corps no legal protection for picking something that’s going to exempt the Missouri River from the Endangered Species Act,” said Chad Smith, an official of the group American Rivers.

The Senate is considering a $25.45 billion spending measure, which provides $2.44 billion more than President Bush is seeking for the nation’s energy and water programs.

Under the bill, HR2311, the government would spend $5.4 billion on environmental cleanups, $7.7 billion on security at U.S. nuclear facilities and $275 million on nuclear waste disposal.

Among Bush’s objections is a big boost in Army corps projects, which bring millions of federal dollars to senators’ home states.

The Senate wants $4.3 billion, which is nearly $406 million more than the president’s request. That includes $240 million for 260 projects that were absent from Bush’s budget blueprint.

Copyright © 2001, Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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