WASHINGTON — Borrowing from the fence-painting genius of Tom Sawyer, President Clinton is striving to convince Americans that the hard work of cleaning up polluted rivers is fun.
Moreover, his new river cleanup program, unveiled yesterday, is designed to bring long-time adversaries together.
Critics say the program may not do much to lessen pollution. But already, those who want their local waterway to become one of 10 "heritage rivers" are building coalitions of environmentalists, developers, and riverfront industries to compete for a slot.
"I never thought I'd sit across the table from some of the people I've been working with," says Patty Pendergast of the National Audubon Society in Old Lyme, Conn., who hopes to help win "heritage" status for New England's Connecticut River.
The program comes 25 years after Congress enacted the Clean Water Act. The CWA drew its impetus from public outrage after the Cuyahoga River in Ohio, burbling with industrial pollutants, caught fire in 1969. At that time, more than two-thirds of the nation's rivers were too polluted for fishing and swimming.
Since then, America's rivers have become cleaner. Water-quality experts say a third of the rivers are now polluted. For them and other environmentalists, reauthorization of the CWA by the current Congress remains the overriding focus. They are pushing for enforceable national standards to control runoff from agriculture and farm feedlots, and tighter regulations to protect wetlands.
"Our rivers are far healthier and cleaner than they were. They don't catch fire. They don't run blue with toxic dyes," says Tom Cassidy, a lawyer for American Rivers, an advocacy group based in Washington. "But we still have industrial pollution."
The president's initiative is far narrower in scope. Its intent is not only to improve water quality, but also to link the cleanup to economic revitalization and historic preservation along a river's banks.
A few groups in the country have already achieved a measure of success following such a model. The Connecticut River, for example, has become the site for festivals, triathlons, and riverside commerce in recent years. The activity is attracting waterfront development and pumping millions of dollars into the economy of Hartford, Conn. Groups in the area tapped already-available resources from several federal agencies.
"It's been hard for people to get their mind around the concept," says Ms. Pendergast, who stood next to Mr. Clinton during yesterday's announcement. "They [federal agencies] aren't going to come and tell you how to do things. They are coming to help."
The program includes no new spending but uses federal aid that's already available. Winners will be announced in January.