CONGRESS seems close to a major legislative achievement: passage of a renewed Clean Water Act. Approval this week by the House of its version of the bill sets the stage for differences between it and the already-passed Senate renewal bill to be worked out by a conference committee. Congressional action was long overdue. The landmark Clean Water Act of 1972 expired at the end of 1981. Possibility of a presidential veto, threatened because the Reagan administration considers both renewal bills too costly, may be lessened by the overwhelming approval votes -- unanimous for the Senate bill, 340-83 for the House measure. Those votes reflect apparently undiminished public support for environmental protection. That support resulted in the pioneering legislation of the early 1970s. Regret tably, the drive to clean up the nation's air, earth, and water has slowed recently. It has run afoul of budget deficits, resistance from an industrial sector trying to bounce back from recession, and an administration's effort to shrink the federal government's role in meeting state and local needs.
Basic to the cleanup of the nation's waters is the program providing for local sewage systems and waste-water treatment facilities. Since 1972 the quality of many lakes and streams has been sufficiently improved to restore fisheries and make them safe for swimmers. But with continuing population and industrial growth, and technological changes that pose new water-purity problems, it is important to maintain a strong national water-quality program. In addition to continued funding of waste-water treatmen t projects, the renewal bills address the need to better control the dumping of toxic wastes into streams and the accumulation of pollutants from ``nonpoint,'' or diffuse, sources such as farms.
Major differences between the House, Senate, and White House center on appropriations. The House wants to spend $21 billion in grants from fiscal 1986 through '94; the Senate would supply $9.6 billion for such work from 1986 through '90, then provide $8.4 billion in loans to states in the 1991-94 period. The Reagan administration seeks to hold water-treatment grants to $6 billion over the next four years and then eliminate the program.
Environmentalists like the funding in the House bill but prefer the Senate's stronger, more specific regulatory provisions. They say that the Environmental Protection Agency under Mr. Reagan has slowed air and water cleanup efforts and delayed action.
Should the President accept the renewed Clean Water Act that emerges from Congress, or should a veto be overridden, the White House will have other opportunities to trim spending when appropriations are voted on.
Spending sufficient money to maintain past water-quality gains and continue improvement is not just a matter of preserving recreational and scenic values. It is sound economic policy, since clean water is essential to growth and prosperity.
It appears quite likely that a bill acceptable to a wide range of interests, including environmentalists and industrialists, will emerge from the House-Senate conference. Congress obviously feels the administration's alternative is counter to the goals of the original Clean Water Act, which are still supported by the public.
A renewed Clean Water Act consistent with the program's initial conception should become law, and it should be adequately funded.