Bush water follies

They're at it again. With Americans riveted to events unfolding in Iraq, the Bush administration has somehow found time to launch an assault on the nation's preeminent clean-water law.

For 30 years, the Clean Water Act has served as the nation's major defense against the pollution of inland and ocean waters. Now, in a year that President Bush has declared the "Year of Clean Water," his administration is arguing that this landmark law should no longer apply to all waters, as Congress intended.

The White House actions are based on a narrow Supreme Court ruling from January 2001 that said Clean Water Act protections do not extend to certain "isolated" wetlands and ponds. The Supreme Court didn't provide a thorough definition of "isolated," nor did it identify what qualifies a wetland or pond for protection.

Seizing an opportunity to exempt broad swaths of American waters from federal protection, the administration launcheda process in January that could significantly limit regulation of "isolated" waters and give the White House power to decide exactly what "isolated" means. Even worse, the administration has demanded that federal agencies immediately suspend protection of many of these waters.

How radical are the proposals? Overwhelming majorities in Congress enacted the Clean Water Act and the law has survived under this original mandate with no major changes in scope through six presidential administrations. But the White House is saying that clean water protection should be based on the navigability and connectedness of a water area with other waters. This would result in classifying millions of acres of streams, wetlands, lakes, and ponds as isolated and unworthy of stewardship. In other words, we might as well let developers pave over that nonnavigable wetland on the edge of town, or allow polluters to foul the "isolated" pond at the end of the street.

Any middle-school science student can tell you that these "isolated" wetlands are essential in keeping the environment clean and healthy. They filter drinking water, replenish groundwater supplies, control flooding, and provide habitat for fish and wildlife species. What's more, protecting wetlands is crucial to protecting the oceans downstream.

Sadly, the administration's recent action is not an isolated assault on clean-water programs. Under the White House 2004 budget proposal, the EPA faces massive cuts - clean-water programs take the biggest hit.

Two years ago, the Bush administration received flak for a proposal to allow higher levels of arsenic in US drinking water. Thanks to a public outcry, that idea went down the drain. We hope the same thing happens to the latest plan to weaken basic clean-water protections. Instead of poking holes in the Clean Water Act, we should be working to make it stronger so that future generations will be able to enjoy all of our nation's waters, isolated or not.

Roger T. Rufe Jr., a retired US Coast Guard vice admiral, is president and CEO of The Ocean Conservancy.

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