EPA Proposes Scrapping Clean Water Program

The Bush administration on Friday proposed rescinding an attempted Clinton-era program aimed at reducing runoff pollution into rivers, lakes and streams.

The Environmental Protection Agency said the clean water program, issued in mid-2000 but later blocked by Congress from being implemented, is unworkable.

It required states to prepare detailed plans for reducing runoff from storm water and agriculture — a major source of pollution of waterways across the country. Many local and state officials had criticized it as too expensive and inflexible.

An effective program requires participation and support from all levels of government, EPA Administrator Christie Whitman said. She said the EPA was not abandoning the effort, although the agency did not spell out what, if anything, might replace it.

"This action will not stop ... development of water quality standards, issuance of permits to control discharges, or enforcement against violators," said Whitman.

Whitman said EPA would continue to try to improve the program. Officials previously had said a new rule was being drafted.

The Clinton-era program would have set up a process for calculating the maximum amounts of pollutants allowed into waterways without violating water quality standards. States would have to find ways to meet the federal standard.

But Congress stopped the 2000 regulation from taking effect after some governors, local officials, agriculture groups and utilities raised concerns about the cost. They also complained it was taking flexibility away from states to implement measures to address water pollution.

Environmentalists wanted the underlying program to be implemented.

"We don't want a new rule-making that will destroy the existing program," said Nancy Stoner, director of the clean water project for Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.

"In the bigger picture, we're no longer making progress in terms of cleaning up polluted waters," she said. "We need to work to implement the program."

The EPA, reiterating findings often cited during by the Clinton administration, said in September more than a third of surveyed rivers, and about half of all lakes and estuaries are too polluted for swimming or fishing. The agency projected a gap of more than $500 billion in unmet water quality needs over the next 20 years unless spending for treatment facilities rises significantly.

From 1998 to 2000, the percentage of polluted streams rose to 39 percent, from its previous level of 35 percent; the percentage of polluted lakes was unchanged at 45 percent; and the percentage of polluted estuaries increased to 51 percent from the previous 44 percent.