A bipartisan group of lawmakers is calling on the Bush administration to drop any plans that would remove federal protection for many small streams and wetlands across the nation.

As of mid-September, more than 100 members of Congress had signed the letter, which warns that such a change would increase pollution into streams, lakes and coastal waterways.

The letter was expected to go to the White House around the end of September.

“Over the last 30 years, our nation has made great progress toward meeting the Clean Water Act’s goal ‘to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation’s waters,” the letter states.

“Reducing the scope of waters protected by the law will reverse our country’s progress toward eliminating our remaining water pollution problems and undermine the significant investments we have made to improve water quality.”

The letter was circulated among House members by Reps. James Leach of Iowa and Jim Saxton of New Jersey, both Republicans, and Reps. James Oberstar of Minnesota and John Dingell of Michigan, both Democrats.

At issue is the January announcement by the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers they they were considering writing new rules to “clarify” the extent of federal jurisdiction over wetlands and waterways in the wake of a January 2001 Supreme Court decision.

In that decision, the court ruled that the federal government could not regulate actions affecting isolated ponds where the only connection to other waterways was the presence of migratory birds. The wording of the decision, the EPA and Corps said, also called into question whether the federal government could assert any regulatory authority over isolated, intrastate and nonnavigable waters.

The agencies sought public comments about whether, and how, they might define “isolated” waters—a classification that could be extended to include small streams that do not always flow year round. It also asked for input about how such a change could affect federal and state programs.

A recent analysis by EPA Region III concluded that a broad interpretation of the decision, which has been advocated by some within the administration, including the Department of the Interior, would remove federal protection from more than half of the streams and nearly two-fifths of the wetlands in the mid-Atlantic. [See “Most streams, many wetlands could lose protection,” Bay Journal, September 2003.]

In their letter, the members of Congress stated that the Supreme Court ruling affected wetlands where federal jurisdiction was based solely on the presence of migratory waterfowl. The decision “did not invalidate any other existing basis of Clean Water Act jurisdiction, nor did the Court’s decision require a rule-making to redefine the scope of waters protected by the law,” they wrote.

Excluding waterways from protection would “lead to unregulated discharges of pollution into streams, ponds and wetlands and, as this pollution flows downstream, greater pollution of our lakes, rivers and coastal waters,” the letter states. “The destruction of wetlands results in the loss of habitat for waterfowl and endangered wildlife, exacerbates flooding, harms water quality and reduces stream flows and groundwater recharge.”

They also warned that such a change would increase financial burdens on states as they would be left on their own to protect those waterways.

The EPA and the Corps received more than 115,000 comments on the issue this spring, but have not indicated when, or whether, they would move ahead with formal rule-making.