ASHLAND, ORE. — WITH rivers overflowing in the Midwest and drought-busting snowpacks filling reservoirs in the West, the United States seems to be awash. But it is the quality of the nation's water, rather than its quantity, for which 1995 is likely to be remembered.
The US House of Representatives recently passed a long and detailed set of amendments to the Clean Water Act, the Nixon-era legislation that has done much to improve US lakes, rivers, and streams.
Proponents say the bill will lift the heavy hand of federal regulation while relying on the expertise and good intent of state and local officials (as well as such private property owners as farmers and paper mills) to continue cleanup efforts at a savings of billions of dollars.
''It's a victory for common sense,'' says Rep. Bud Shuster (R) of Pennsylvania, who led the bipartisan effort that saw the legislation pass 240 to 185 in the House.
'Polluters' bill of rights'
Opponents call it something else.
''This is a polluters' bill of rights,'' warns Rep. Peter DeFazio (D) of Oregon. ''It takes us back to the bad old days in Oregon when the Willamette River was virtually an open sewer.''
There is no arguing that US waters are a lot cleaner since passage of the 1972 legislation. Toxics from factories, sewage plants, and other ''point sources'' of pollution have dropped more than 2 million pounds per day.
But the Clean Water Act not only has been costly (more than $70 billion in federal funds have been spent over the past 23 years), it also set a very high standard: Ensuring that 3 million miles of rivers and streams, 27 million acres of lakes, and 35,000 square miles of estuaries be ''fishable and swimmable.''
So despite the clear improvements, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, about one-third of the nation's waters still do not meet the goal.
Because of agricultural pesticides and industrial contamination, water quality in most of the Great Lakes rates only fair or poor, the EPA reported earlier this year. And according to a study issued last October by an environmental research group and a physicians' organization, more than 14 million Americans drink water contaminated by farm chemicals.
Now that most ''end-of-the-pipe'' pollution has been controlled or at least identified, two particular challenges remain: preventing ''nonpoint pollution'' such as storm-sewer runoff and farm chemicals, and defining wetlands.
The bill passed by the House May 16 relaxes some federal regulations on factories and municipalities. Industries, for example, will be allowed to pollute in some ways if they can prove ''an overall reduction in discharges'' resulting in ''a net benefit to the environment.''
States will have greater control over storm-water runoff and other sources of nonpoint pollution, with 15 years to achieve compliance to the strong standards.
Such standards -- passed as a part of the Republican Party's Contract With America -- must take into account economic costs and benefits as well as environmental and health risks. The bill also requires that landowners be compensated whenever their property value drops 20 percent or more as a result of federal wetlands regulation.
Congressman Shuster calls such measures ''a victory for the American people ... 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 EPA headquarters in Washington.''
But Tim Searchinger, an attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund, says the House-passed amendments ''replace the requirement that water be fishable and swimmable with a requirement that says states can adopt any standards they want so long as the state can find an economist who will say the costs of clean water exceed the benefits.''
Lawmakers spent 31 hours debating the bill, more than three times as much as was spent on the original Clean Water Act.
Much of that wrangling had to do with wetlands -- those swamps, marshes, bogs, and prairie potholes experts say are important for water filtration, flood prevention, and wildlife habitat.
The House bill would narrow the definition of a wetland by requiring it to have surface water for 21 consecutive days during the growing season and to have plants adapted to wet conditions.
But many scientists say it's not that simple. The National Research Council (a private, nonprofit institution affiliated with the National Academy of Sciences) recently finished a two-year study that stresses the regional differences in wetlands.
Taking issue with the House bill, this committee of experts concluded that ''relying on broadly drawn categories to determine the usefulness or value of specific wetlands probably would not be possible.''
National groups of mayors, governors, and county officials favor the bill, as do many industry groups.
The National Mining Association in its newsletter this week boasted that the group's lobbyists had ''added'' provisions ''favored by the mining industry.'' These include a provision that ''reclassifies run-off from all mining operations.''
This seemed to confirm critics' charges that special interests had a direct hand in writing the legislation.
The Senate is expected to craft its changes to the Clean Water Act this summer.