Creating citizen–government partnerships that would rebuild aquatic habitats, restore riverbanks, and pull trash out of urban waterways, is the focus of legislation recently introduced in Congress to help clean up the nation’s polluted urban rivers.

The Urban Watershed Restoration Act, introduced by Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., with 23 other cosponsors, would require the EPA to spend a quarter of the money earmarked for runoff control programs to fund projects in urban areas that would control runoff and improve wildlife and fish habitat.

“We have neglected urban lakes, rivers and streams just as we have neglected the cities in which they are located,” Norton said at a news conference. “The urban waters suffer every kind of damage — channelization, stormwater, lawn and farm runoff, raw sewage leaking from pipes and sewers, and trash from individual businesses.”

Norton cited a one-year study by the EPA that found urban areas comprise only 2.5 percent of the nation’s land surface but are responsible for 18 percent of the nation’s impaired river miles. They get only 13 percent of the available funding from the EPA for nonpoint source pollution programs.

The administration has requested $100 million for the EPA’s nonpoint source program in its 1995 budget proposal; under Norton’s bill, $25 million would be set aside for urban waterways. Her bill would allow grants of up to $500,000 to groups involved with urban river restoration projects that could range from trash removal and streambank restoration to efforts aimed at improving local planning and zoning.

The restoration programs would be administered by states which have successful urban river restoration programs, or by the EPA in other states.

The EPA and other federal agencies would provide technical assistance for the projects.

The EPA would develop criteria for the grants that would include ecological objectives as well as economic and community goals. For example, priority would be given to projects that would restore physical habitat and biological integrity to urban waterways and to projects that provide jobs and career development opportunities for youths in urban watersheds. Priority would also be given to projects that help implement restoration programs for designated national estuaries, including the Chesapeake Bay.

All projects would be required to have both a local government and local citizen group sponsor. “Without community consciousness and community involvement, no river or lake can be cleaned or remain clean,” Norton said. “Whether from runoff from farms or highways, or deliberate desecration from bottles and tires, the community is always implicated in the pollution of its waters. The community is indispensable to the renaissance of its own waterways.”

Norton said her concern about urban waterways was heightened last year when the environmental group American Rivers ranked the Anacostia River, which flows through the District and its heavily urbanized suburbs, as the fourth most endangered river in the country.

“The Anacostia River had been my primary environmental focus since coming to Congress,” Norton said. “However, when the ‘People’s River’ went to the top of the dirty rivers list, I believed an approach at once more focused and more comprehensive than the splendid efforts under way in this region had to be initiated.”

The bill is backed by American Rivers, which publishes an annual list of rivers it considers most imperiled by pollution, dams, or other impacts. “Too often, the environmental community has been too busy saving pristine areas far from home,” said Beth Norcross, legislative director for American Rivers. “We need to look only as far as our own backyard to find resources in trouble and communities in trouble.”

The legislation is also backed by more than a dozen other environmental groups, including the National Audubon Society, the National Wildlife Federation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Anacostia Watershed Society, and Trout Unlimited. It is also supported by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.