A Gray-Green Congress

AS the 103rd Congress hurries to wrap up its work this week, it is leaving a truckload of unfinished environmental bills swirling behind it.

We would have preferred to see Congress come to closure on Superfund's overhaul and reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act. Badly needed changes to an 1872 mining law would have allowed the federal government to tax the minerals extracted and imposed tough new environmental standards on mine operators. But these were buried when House and Senate conferees gave up on trying to craft a compromise that satisfied both environmentalists and pro-mining Western senators.

Fortunately, at this writing some hope remains that a compromise measure setting aside 6.6 million acres in California's Mojave Desert as wilderness and parkland still might squeak by in the hours remaining until adjournment. And Congress increased the budget for Everglades restoration, from $18 million during the last fiscal year to $46 million as of Oct. 1.

Yet as environmental groups lament Congress's lackluster performance, it is useful to remember that when filibusters threaten to stymie efforts in Washington, progressive work continues outside the beltway.

In California, for example, the state has approved an accord between the Los Angeles Department of Power and Light and environmentalists that will help restore Mono Lake. Since 1941, the city has siphoned water from the major streams feeding the lake, ruining it as a breeding ground for migratory birds. A court injunction in 1989 shut the spigot temporarily; last week, the two sides and the state agreed to a plan that would fill the lake to a higher level while still allowing L.A. to draw limited quantities of water after that level is reached.

In Florida, the US Army Corps of Engineers has signed a deal to spend a decade and $101 million to restore a more natural flow to the Shark River in the Everglades. The Corps also is expected to unveil an ambitious plan next month to help restore the water flow throughout southern Florida, reversing damage done to the environmentally sensitive Everglades region.

If Washington has been slow off the mark, it may be due to complacency; many environmental groups saw in President Clinton and some of his appointees kindred spirits. If the L.A. and Florida cases carry any lesson, it is that there is no room for complacency.

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