Clean Water: The Next Generation

IN the 1970s, Lake Erie was dead or dying; rivers in Maine were so polluted that they couldn't bear any new industries, and most of the nation's major rivers were little more than open sewers. Still, it took the spectacle of the Cuyahoga River burning to the waterline three times before Congress passed a clean-water law. Even then, most states continued to ignore evidence of pollution's threat until they were forced to act.

In the past 22 years, consumers' demand for clean, safe water has grown more intense, but there are no burning rivers to galvanize their demands into prompt congressional action. So it is not surprising that some in Congress and statehouses are again looking for a way to duck environmental issues.

We have solved many water pollution problems. Sewage and industrial sludge no longer are routinely dumped into America's waters, but the remaining pollution is no less threatening. Highly toxic chemicals travel up the food chain and make the fish in more than 1,000 lakes unsafe to eat. ``Non-point source pollution'' flows unchecked into our rivers. One-third of those rivers and nearly half of our lakes fail to meet basic standards.

The problems persist because they are the hardest ones to solve. Water pollution remains because the hammer of ``command and control'' regulations can't do the whole job. We need new ways to approach these problems, and new tools.

* Some of the tools need to reach to a problem's roots. For example, two-thirds of water pollution is caused by ``non-point source pollutants'' - pesticides from farms, oil, grime from roads, and fertilizers from lawns. This runoff now threatens more than seven million acres of lakes and 150,000 miles of rivers in the United States.

Because we can't pinpoint the cause of much of this pollution, we can't stop it the same way we have the dumping of industrial wastes and sewage - by focusing on approximately 5,000 ``outfall'' pipes. Instead, we need local solutions that encourage businesses, farmers, and consumers to use techniques that make them better stewards of the land.

* Other tools must be flexible. Preventive tools, including an outright ban of especially dangerous pollutants, are needed in the case of pollutants whose damage we don't see for a generation. Innovative technologies that won't scatter contaminants and sediments are needed in the case of cleaning up lake bottoms. And user-friendly approaches that deliver answers promptly are needed to make wetlands protection more effective.

* Finally, we need to retool existing approaches to pollution. Of the nine major US environmental laws, not one was designed to work with any other one. We need to start looking at the environmental bottom line. Mercury-poisoned waters, for example, are a health risk - first to the fish and then to the people who eat them. But 85 percent of the mercury in the water comes from the air, so targeting water pollution isn't enough.

America's clean-water laws have been the most successful of all environmental regulations. They have changed the way we think about our environment, and they have protected both jobs and recreation. But this is no time to sugarcoat the fact that our environmental laws have not always worked the way they were designed to work.

If Congress does not act this year, cities across the country will face up to $100 billion in sewer repairs: 20 years' worth of projects that must begin this October under current law. Without action this year, the money for local water-treatment projects will run dry. Congress got involved in fighting pollution because it is a national problem that obeys no boundaries - one that local communities cannot solve without a strategy that assures downstream communities do not have to pay for upstream neglect. We need to get back to those basics, and start by making ``unfunded mandates'' longer on funds and shorter on mandates.

Environmentalists and businesses have called a temporary truce in the war they have fought in the courts over nearly every environmental issue. They are waiting to see if we can end the gridlock, and the Clean Water Act is the first big test. With an administration that is determined to make our environmental laws work without damaging our economic recovery, we have the opportunity to succeed.

Our experience since the first Clean Water Act was written 20 years ago has taught us two things: First, we've learned that a hammer can solve some problems. In fact, it has stopped 87 percent of the ``point source'' pollution from industry and sewer pipes. Second, we've learned that a hammer cannot solve every problem.

What we need now is a full toolbox of solutions that can target the remaining problems. And we need to convince Congress and the states to start putting all of those tools to work protecting our rivers, lakes, and streams.

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