President Clinton has promised to veto a House bill that would roll back wetlands protection, delay the implementation of stormwater-control efforts and relax some water quality standards.

The House approved the bill May 16 on a 240-185 vote - far short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto. The legislation was opposed by most lawmakers from the Bay watershed.

Proponents said the bill would reduce the regulatory burden on landowners and reduce the cost of meeting clean water requirements by giving industries and state and local governments more flexibility. Critics charged that the bill would encourage states to reduce water quality protection and open new loopholes for polluters.

"Members of Congress who support this legislation actually have the nerve to call their bill the Clean Water Act," Clinton said in a May 30 speech at Rock Creek Park in Washington. "But newspapers all over America are calling it the "Dirty Water Act." And it won"t get past my desk."

But Rep. Bud Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the bill"s chief sponsor, repeatedly characterized opponents as "extreme environmentalists" and derided suggestions that water pollution would be increased.

"The people at the local level have a better understanding of their water quality affairs than self-important bureaucrats in Washington," Shuster said during House debate on the bill.

If the legislation becomes law, some critics say, it could hinder cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay by undermining existing water-quality standards, weakening federal nonpoint pollution control programs and removing regulatory protection for most wetlands.

EPA Administrator Carol Browner told The Washington Post that the legislation "would gut the underpinning of all our efforts to fight pollution in the Chesapeake."

Chesapeake Bay Foundation President Will Baker called the legislation "one of the lowest points ever in the nation"s fight to protect our waters."

"Decades of progress in cleaning up the Bay are beginning to show positive results, but [the bill], if it stands, will jeopardize all that has been gained to date," Baker said.

The most heated debate focused on wetlands. The bill requires that surface water cover an area for 21 consecutive days during the growing season to be classified as wetlands - a change that would exempt huge tracts of land from regulation. "Wetlands should be wet," Shuster said. He called the bill "common-sense approach" to determining a wetland.

Baker said that the bill "declares that 70 percent of the Bay's existing wetlands are simply no longer 'wetlands' under the law." Wetland protection is considered important to Chesapeake restoration because they help filter water before entering streams, rivers and the Bay and because they provide important wildlife habitat. Even wetlands that appear dry much of the year help retain runoff, remove pollutants and reduce flooding. The Bay Program has a goal of a "net gain" in the amount of wetlands in the watershed.

Wetlands that still met the new definition would be classified into three categories under the legislation, with those deemed "least valuable" no longer getting any federal protection. Any regulatory action taken to protect wetlands in the other two categories would require that the government compensate the landowner if the action reduced property values by 20 percent or more.

Shuster said the bill would "conserve the best wetlands" while protecting property rights elsewhere. "Environmental extremists have pushed the realm of reason so far that wetlands are basically any piece of land with some water," he argued.

But a report by the National Academy of Sciences, released just before floor debate began on the bill, challenged many of the basic scientific assumptions made in the legislation.

The study, which was commissioned by Congress, said that determining a wetland is complex, should take into account regional variations and is not necessarily related to whether land actually has long periods of surface saturation. It also challenged the notion that certain wetlands found on farms, in the permafrost regions of Alaska, or in areas isolated from surface water should need any less protection. These wetlands have many of the same attributes and "perform the same kinds of functions" as other wetlands, the study concluded.

But the House voted down a series of amendments aimed at making the legislation reflect the study"s findings. "Why are we afraid of science?" asked Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., who opposed the bill.

Proponents, such as Rep. James Hayes, D-La., who crafted much of the wetlands language of the bill, declared that the issue is "between the rights of individuals and the arrogance of government." Lawmakers showed pictures of seemingly arid sections of land that have been set aside as wetlands under current policy. Shuster argued property owners need to be protected from the "environmental Gestapo" that enforces wetlands rules.

An amendment by Rep. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., to provide compensation for homeowners who are harmed because of a failure to declare adjacent property a wetland was defeated.

While the most controversy swirled around wetlands, the bill would make other substantial changes in the way the government would go about protecting water quality.

Under the legislation, any regulatory action costing the private sector more than $25 million could be implemented only after it was supported by a cost-benefit analysis. Proponents say that would assure regulations make economic sense. Opponents say cost-benefit analyses are too imprecise for such applications, in part because it is difficult to estimate the benefit of such things as preventing stormwater runoff or keeping specific chemicals out of the water. In addition, the House bill allows a cost-benefit analysis to be challenged in court, which could further delay pollution controls. Currently, the EPA controls water pollution by setting discharge "performance standards" which can be achieved by using the best available and economically achievable technology.

The legislation also makes it easier for states to downgrade the amount of protection given particular lakes and rivers. Under current law, states determine which water bodies should be usable for fishing, swimming, drinking water, agriculture and other uses. The states then establish standards to guarantee that the water is clean enough for those purposes. The House bill makes it much easier for states to downgrade uses for bodies of water that do not yet meet water quality standards. Critics say competition among states will force them to downgrade water quality standards to compete with others to attract industry.

The bill would allow the implementation of stormwater control programs to be delayed by 15 to 20 years beyond what is now required. Controlling runoff from urban streets, an expensive proposition, had been a major concern for many cities. Stormwater runoff is the main contributor of toxic metals - such as lead, mercury, copper and chromium - to the Chesapeake, according to a Bay Program estimate.

The bill requires states to develop nonpoint source control plans that would achieve water quality standards and gives them substantial flexibility to meet those standards. The bill does not require any specific enforcement mechanisms to control runoff. It considers farms to be in compliance with any nonpoint source plan if they are implementing a U.S. Department of Agriculture natural resources management plan. The bill had authorized $500 million annually for state nonpoint source pollution control programs, but the House adopted an amendment that removed that funding.

The bill also removes the requirement that mandatory nonpoint source programs be implemented in coastal areas as had been required by Section 6217 of the Coastal Zone Act Reauthorization Amendments of 1990. Coastal areas that had been affected by that requirement included areas of Virginia east of Interstate 95 and most of Maryland. States will have the option of keeping that program, or developing a voluntary runoff control program. The bill would allow the administrator of the EPA, in consultation with the governor, to require that an enforceable plan be developed if the voluntary program is not considered adequate to protect water quality.

The bill also allows states to develop watershed programs to meet water quality standards. The plans would allow discharges from industrial facilities or sewage treatment plants to increase if the plans have offsetting reductions from nonpoint sources in the watershed.

States are now required to review water quality standards and hold public hearings every three years. The bill changes that to every five years.

The bill was expected to have a tougher time in the Senate, where Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., chairman of the Environment Committee that would consider the bill, views it as too extreme. Any comparable bill in the Senate would also probably face a filibuster.

- The Associated Press contributed to this report

How they voted

How lawmakers whose districts represent portions of the Bay watershed voted.

Voting for the bill:

State Representative
Maryland Bartlett (R)
New York Houghton (R), Walsh (R)
Pennsylvania Holden (D), Clinger (R), Gekas (R), McDade (R), Shuster (R), Walker (R)
Virginia Pickett (D), Sisisky (D), Bateman (R), Bliley (R), Goodlatte (R
West Virginia Mollohan (D)

Voting against the bill:

State Representative
Delaware Castle (R)
Maryland Cardin (D), Hoyer (D), Mfume (D), Wynn (D), Ehrlich (R), Gilchrest (R), Morella (R)
New York Hinchey (D), Boehlert (R)
Pennsylvania Kanjorski (D)
Virginia Boucher (D), Moran (D), Payne (D), Scott (D), Davis (R), Wolf (R)
West Virginia Wise (D)

Not voting:

State Representative
Pennsylvania Goodling (R)