Magazine article Insight on the News

It Won't Be Smooth Sailing for Clean Water Revisions

Magazine article Insight on the News

It Won't Be Smooth Sailing for Clean Water Revisions

Article excerpt

A great blue heron swoops down, scanning the surface of the undulating waters for any sign -- a splash or gurgle -- of its favorite prey, the striped bass. The quiet return of these majestic waterfowl to Chesapeake Bay offers hope for this vast wetland as it teeters precariously close to ecological collapse.

Just 60 miles to the northwest, a vociferous debate has ensued about the future of the Chesapeake and hundreds of other wetlands throughout the United States. Both Republicans and Democrats have affirmed their commitment to improving the nation's water quality, but the two parties are approaching the task from opposing perspectives.

After months of intense debate -- and 31 hours of floor consideration in mid-May alone, the most time ever spent discussing a piece of environmental legislation -- the House approved major revisions to the 23-year-old Clean Water Act. The final vote, 240 to 185, included 45 conservative Democrats voting for the bill and 34 moderate Republicans against it.

Sponsored by Pennsylvania Republican Bud Shuster and cosponsored by Louisiana Democrat Jimmy Hayes, the revisions would give states more authority to set local water-quality standards and farmers, businesses and sewage-treatment authorities more leverage in regard to economic matters. Most of the controversy, however, surrounds the wetlands provision: Environmentalists believe the law's new definition of a wetland, requiring surface water to lay on the land for 21 consecutive days, is restrictive; economists note that the bill's provision to compensate landowners whose property values decrease by 20 percent due to a wetlands declaration will cost taxpayers $15 million.

According to Shuster, the legislation builds upon the strengths of the 1972 act while updating portions that have been made obsolete by new technology and techniques. "At the heart of the bill is a return of power to cities and states," he says, "a recognition that the people at the local level have a better understanding of their water-quality affairs than the self-important bureaucrats in the [Environmental Protection Agency] headquarters in Washington."

Environmentalists and some newspaper editors, however, have labeled the revision "the Dirty Water Act" and President Clinton has pledged to veto a bill that would take the nation's water quality "straight down the drain." In June, the president addressed the issue in Washington's Rock Creek Park, a place where one of the nation's first environmentalists, Theodore Roosevelt, loved to walk. Clinton praised the former Republican president for his initial steps to preserve the nation's natural resources and accused the Republican-controlled House of abandoning a tradition of bipartisan support for the environment. "Members of the new Congress, operating with major industrial lobbyists, have come up with a bill that would roll back a quarter-century of bipartisan progress in public health and environmental protection," Clinton said.

Shuster retaliated by accusing Clinton of "sky-is-falling" rhetoric. "This is a commonsense bill written and supported by an overwhelming bipartisan majority of House members," he told reporters. "It's pretty evident that the president is reading off a script handed to him by environmental extremists." He stressed that the bill is supported by "virtually every publicsector group" in the United States, including the National Governors' Association, which President Clinton once headed.

But Shuster acknowledges the difficulty of protecting the nation's water for future generations while maintaining a commitment to a balanced budget. "This country's remaining water-pollution challenges are the most difficult and costly to address," he says. "[The bill] increased ... funding to $2.25 billion from the president's miserly request of $1.2 billion annually to help communities build wastewater infrastructure so we will no longer have untreated sewage dumped directly into rivers and streams. …

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