An EPA up The Creek

The Environmental Protection Agency has issued a stern reminder that the country's water-pollution problem is far from solved. It's right on that score, but its method of solving the problem could leave it high and dry.

The EPA's goal is to sharply reduce pollution from "nonpoint" sources - that, is, sources that can't be identified as a particular factory or sewage treatment plant. These include run-off from farms, storm sewers, and logged forests.

The agency published new rules that require states, over a 15-year period, to identify streams or bodies of water affected by nonpoint pollution, set a pollution-reduction standard for each (called the total maximum daily load, or TMDL), and undertake an enforcement program to meet that standard. It sounds like standard operating procedure for the EPA's regulators, but look closer.

First, the timing of these new rules is controversial, and shrewd. Congressional opponents of the rules had earlier attached an amendment to an emergency spending bill in order to block the EPA action. The agency, with President Clinton's nod, of course, sped up its work and got the rules out before the spending bill was signed.

This brought cries of thwarting the will of Congress. Perhaps so, but lawmakers are not likely to spend much more time trying to undo antipollution rules just before an election. In any case, the EPA's timing is a tangential issue compared to the core question of whether its regulatory approach is the right one.

Nearly every state already has programs to address nonpoint pollution. Federal clean-water laws leave this task up to the states. And for good reason. It's a matter of getting individual farmers, for instance, to change tilling methods or plant a wooded buffer between their fields and nearby streams. State and local officials are better suited to encourage that than federal regulators. To date, programs have been voluntary, and they've been more intensive in some regions than others.

The EPA wants to get rid of that unevenness. That's a reasonable goal. But the way it's carried out is critical.

Even under the new rules, states and localities will still do the basic work. Many states believe the increased monitoring and enforcement will cost billions, not the millions estimated by the EPA. There should be frank discussion of costs.

Farm interests need to be brought into the process as partners, so that methods to reduce harmful run-off, such as more-precise application of fertilizer, can be more widely adopted.

The threat, implied in the rules, of a federal takeover of pollution-control programs if states are still lacking after 15 years should be removed. This effort to further clean up an estimated 20,000 rivers, lakes, and bays has to rest on cooperation, not coercion, at all levels of government.

And it shouldn't be forgotten that the desire to get the job done comes as much from local citizens that want clean water as from Washington. That's why so many states have programs well under way.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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