TWENTY-four years ago Congress passed, over President Nixon's veto, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, commonly known as the Clean Water Act. The measure held businesses and governments to strict standards regarding the release of pollutants into rivers, streams, and lakes. Because of those standards, the country's slide toward tainted, dead waterways was reversed.
Two years later, in 1974, the Safe Drinking Water Act became law, putting in place landmark standards for public water supplies.
Both acts have been subject to far-reaching revision in the current session of Congress. A year ago, the House passed major revisions in the Clean Water Act, revisions that would loosen federal regulation of sewage runoff into streams and weaken protection for wetlands. To its credit, the Senate balked at that, and the overall weakening embraced by the House measure is not likely to clear the 104th Congress. President Clinton would veto it in any case.
Safe drinking water has had a somewhat smoother flow through Congress. Last November the Senate unanimously passed a revision of the 1974 act. That bill maintained strict standards, though it gives state and local water authorities added leeway in determining what they should test for. The matter is unresolved in the House, where the political clout of pesticide and chlorine manufacturers worries environmentalists. The Senate bill represents a balanced approach, and it may yet become law, especially since Republicans are eager to claim an environmental laurel.
Many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle reject any swerve away from the standards that have given Americans more drinkable, swimmable, fishable waters. They recognize that environmental protection is likely to be a potent political issue this fall. Polls indicate most citizens would prefer a strengthening of clean-water protections.
But the interests that drove the House clean-water revisions last year haven't given up. There are still efforts to undermine existing regulations piecemeal, if not as a whole. Wetlands protection, in particular, is under fire. Some Senate Republicans have joined House colleagues in backing legislation that would reclassify wetlands, removing many of them from protection. Efforts to attach "riders" to appropriations bills that would lop off funds for wetlands protection are also anticipated.
Not that this subject should be off limits for legislative scrutiny. Some reexamination of wetlands regulation to ensure reasonableness and awareness of regulatory costs is useful. But the process should be weighted toward preservation of a dwindling resource invaluable for groundwater filtration, flood control, and wildlife habitat.
Environmental protection will always entail some burden, putting constraints on the actions of individuals and corporations. That's a cost, but it's one the country thought reasonable 24 years ago. There's little evidence that consensus has changed.