WHEN Congress overrode President Nixon's veto to pass the Clean Water Act in 1972, it began one of the biggest jobs of the environmental age: restoring the nation's lakes, rivers, streams, and coastal areas to ``fishable and swimmable'' condition.
It was an enormous task, involving cleaning up decades of industrial pollution, improving the treatment of urban sewage, and reversing the widespread runoff of chemical wastes and silt from farming, logging, and mining industries.
While considerable improvements have been made, there is general agreement that much work still remains, and it will cost billions of dollars. And while the administration and Congress have begun work to improve that landmark legislation as part of its reauthorization, several political stumbling blocks are emerging.
Among them: growing resistance to ``unfunded federal mandates'' (Uncle Sam ordering state and local governments to take actions without providing the cash); the private-property-rights movement, particularly applying to wetlands protection; and the fact that most of the remaining cleanup is of ``nonpoint source pollution'' -
80 percent of it from agriculture, which is well-represented in Washington.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Carol Browner last Tuesday announced the administration's plan to improve the Clean Water Act while reducing projected costs, moving toward a ``market approach'' to pollution cleanup, and giving local governments more say in the program. ``We've done the easy part by controlling pollution at the end of the pipeline,'' she said. ``Now, for the first time ever, we are tackling the hard part - the control of pollution runoff that streams into our waterways from city streets, lawns, farms, and industrial facilities.''
The Clinton plan is similar to a proposed bill by Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee chairman.
The administration's 161-page proposal cites ``serious quality threats [growing] unchecked.'' The proposal states: ``Recent state assessments show 30 percent of rivers, 42 percent of lakes, and 32 percent of estuaries surveyed continue to be degraded, mainly by silt and nutrients from farm and urban runoff, combined sewer overflows, and municipal sewage.... Seven hundred forty million pounds of toxic chemicals pour into waterways and municipal sewers each year. Localized ground-water contamination is rampant. Despite national attention, wetlands continue to be lost at an astonishing rate of hundreds of thousands of acres annually.''
The EPA overview confirms a study of the Clean Water Act by a private group, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Published by Island Press in October, ``The Clean Water Act: Twenty Years Later'' reported that toxic industrial pollutants have been cut from some 1 billion pounds per year to several hundred million pounds annually.
AT the same time, however, the NRDC finds that urban and agricultural runoff (nonpoint source pollution) continues to impair more than 125,000 miles of rivers, nearly 2 million acres of lakes, about 1.2 million acres of coastal waters, and some 5,000 square miles of estuaries.
Overall, NRDC study authors found the Clean Water Act to be ``riddled with serious gaps, loopholes, and other problems.'' They wrote: ``Some of these result from inadequate funding and personnel ... others from poorly written and sometimes illegal regulations, and others simply from a lack of will to enforce the law properly.''
The administration estimates it will cost $70 billion a year to meet Clean Water Act goals. That's more than the $62 billion being spent at all government levels, but less than the $100 billion it would cost to meet the act's goals without such cost-saving reforms as streamlining regulations and enforcement and giving local governments more flexibility to focus on the most serious water-pollution problems.
Environmentalists laud the administration for the proposal's depth and detail, but they are wary of some elements. Among them: ``tradable permits'' that could allow some pollution to continue, ``mitigation banking'' that would permit some filling of wetlands, and relinquishing of some enforcement powers to states.
``We have a problem with state assumption of permitting functions,'' said John Friedrich, special-projects director for Clean Water Action, a group Browner used to work for. ``In particular, we don't want EPA to lose important oversight functions.''
All parties pushing for a more effective Clean Water Act agree that polluted runoff - especially from farm chemicals - is a major problem. The Clinton plan calls for a study of ``the feasibility, implementability, and cost-effectiveness of fertilizer taxes.''
The American Farm Bureau Federation, which represents 4.2 million family farmers, has made environmental issues one of its top legislative priorities for 1994. In a recent issue of ``Farm Bureau News,'' federation governmental-relations director Mark Maslyn said: ``I am convinced there is a core of senators who want to make sure agriculture is not adversely affected by the Clean Water Act.''
The cost of imposing current and any new federal regulation also is likely to be a major point of contention in new legislation. So far, nearly 200 members of the House and Senate have signed up to support bills requiring the federal government to pay for regulations imposed by Washington.
Rep. Gerry Studds (D) of Massachusetts, who chairs the House committee that will oversee Clean Water Act reauthorization, says one answer to funding is his proposed ``Polluter Pays Clean Water Funding Act.'' Supporters say this bill would raise $4 billion a year from the largest industrial users of water and also from those who pollute based on a sliding scale tied to toxicity and amount of pollution. The Studds bill also includes a tax on pesticides and fertilizers.