The Clinton administration has proposed updated clean water legislation that would require stronger efforts to control runoff from farms and other land uses while prompting states to develop strategies that would protect water quality throughout entire watersheds.

President Clinton called for passage of a new Clean Water Act in his State of the Union address, and on Feb. 1 EPA Administrator Carol Browner unveiled the administration’s proposal. It contains new initiatives to control toxics and gives states greater flexibility to use federal loans in new ways, such as stream restoration. But what may be most significant is its new regulations to control nonpoint source pollution, which looms as the major threat to the Chesapeake Bay and other bodies of water.

“We’ve done the easy part by controlling pollution at the end of the pipeline,” Browner said. “For the first time ever, we are tackling the hard part — the control of polluted runoff that streams into our waterways from city streets, lawns, farms, and industrial plants. That is the biggest remaining barrier we face in keeping the nation’s waters clean.”

While the nation’s water quality has improved since the original Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, nonpoint source pollution is largely blamed for the failure to meet the act’s overall goal of making the nation’s rivers and lakes fishable and swimmable. Citing recent state water quality assessments, the EPA says that 44 percent of lakes, 38 percent of rivers, and 32 percent of estuaries are unusable for fishing or swimming. The main sources of pollution in those areas, according to the EPA, is silt and nutrients from farm and urban runoff, combined sewer overflows, and municipal sewage.

Under the proposed legislation, states for the first time would have to implement nonpoint source control programs which include the best available “management measures” to protect lakes, rivers, and streams where the water quality is impaired, threatened, or deserves special protection. Runoff controls would also apply to all new nonpoint sources in the state. States would have up to 10 years to phase in the controls on targeted areas.

The legislation would also give the EPA more authority to restrict or prohibit the discharge of highly toxic and bioaccumulative pollutants. In particular, it would authorize a new strategy to control the use of chlorine and chlorinated compounds, which a series of recent studies have implicated in reproductive and hormone changes in animals and humans. The legislation also calls for further reductions from other air and land sources of pollution which contribute to water pollution.

But much of the proposal emphasizes flexibility, in large part by altering the way states, local governments, and the federal government address water quality problems. It calls on states — in concert with local governments, businesses, citizens, and others — to set standards for entire watersheds that protect water quality and habitats. States would be given greater flexibility in how to meet their water quality objectives within those watersheds. Instead of pursuing “one-size-fits-all” regulations for the entire nation, the administration’s proposal would give states greater latitude in targeting specific activities and areas that pose the greatest risk to local water quality.

As part of that flexibility, the legislation also encourages market-based approaches to make pollution control more effective. For example, pollution trading between different sources — or between point and nonpoint sources — may be used to help meet overall water quality standards within a watershed. The legislation also allows techniques such as taxing effluent to encourage reduced pollution.

The administration’s proposal would make $13 billion available over 10 years in the state Revolving Loan Fund as well as $200 million a year available for direct grants. In addition, the proposal would provide greater flexibility in how states use the loan fund. Traditionally, it has helped finance major projects such as sewage treatment plants, but the proposed legislation would allow it to be used for other water quality projects, such as stream restoration, pollution prevention, and water conservation.

Urban watersheds would be given particular priority for funding — including restoration activities — and disadvantaged communities that cannot meet state affordability criteria would be eligible for special “negative interest loans” to fund water quality improvements.

The proposal also seeks to give more flexibility to industries and other point sources. Those that want to meet their pollution discharge permit requirements by adopting new technologies which offer more effective and cheaper pollution prevention or control would be given more time to implement those technologies.

The proposal would beef up enforcement. Federal facilities would have to comply with the law, and citizens would be allowed to sue over violations of the law. The bill would also require courts to fine polluters in amounts at least equal to the economic gain made by the polluter for not complying with the law.

It also calls for increases in permit fees to cover the states’ costs of administering the program.

Federal and local governments, as well as industries and farmers, spend about $60 billion a year in surface water pollution controls. If all waterways and lakes were to be brought into compliance with the current law, the cost would soar to $100 billion a year, Browner said.

But she predicted that by adopting the bill’s watershed approach and by granting greater flexibility in the way water standards are achieved, the administration's proposal would gain full compliance for about $72 billion a year — a saving of nearly $30 billion annually. For example, municipalities that face the costly task of reducing pollution from storm water runoff would be given greater leeway in deciding how to reduce pollution — flexibility the administration says could reduce storm water control costs by fourfold.

Environmental groups generally welcomed the proposal. The Sierra Club said the Clinton administration’s “focus is a vital step to improve the health of our people and of our communities.” But some elements — such as the call for a new chlorine strategy — drew criticism from industry groups. “There is only one word to describe our industry’s reaction — outrage,” Fred Webber, president of the Chemical Manufacturer’s Association, said in a statement.

The fate of the legislation is uncertain. Clean water bills have already been introduced in the House and Senate. The administration’s bill is most similar to the Senate bill written by Sens. Max Baucus, (D-Mont.), and John Chafee (R-R.I.) and revised by Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.).

The House measure, sponsored by Rep. Gerry Studds, (D-Mass.), has more significant differences, including a call to tax fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals as well as heavy industrial water users. The money would be used to help fund pollution control requirements.

But many lawmakers are ready to challenge any legislation which appears to add to the regulatory burden on states, local government, and private industry. In addition, final clean water legislation will likely address the contentious issue of wetlands, which is certain to draw challenges from those who contend that wetland regulation constitutes a taking of private property and landowners should therefore be compensated.

The act was last revised in 1986.