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The Planet

March 1998, Volume 5, Number 3
Clinton Proposes Ambitious Water Plan
The president puts the spotlight on polluted runoff
and pledges a net gain in wetland habitat

by Jenny Coyle

    When President Clinton unveiled his Clean Water Action Plan in Baltimore on Feb. 19, it was the first acknowledgment at the presidential level that polluted runoff — such as oil from city streets and pesticides from farms — threatens the nation’s water quality. The plan calls for a reduction in runoff from federal lands, the creation of buffer strips along 2 million miles of streams and improvements in monitoring major water pollutants. 

    But that’s not where the good news ends. Clinton’s plan also pledges to achieve a 100,000-acre net gain in wetlands per year by 2005. We currently lose 117,000 acres per year. What’s more, the president proposes that federal land managers improve water quality in streams and rivers by improving maintenance along 2,000 miles of roads and trails each year by 2005, and decommissioning 5,000 miles of roads — some in wilderness areas and national forests — each year by 2002. 

    The Clinton plan proposes to spend $568 million in fiscal year 1999 — a 35 percent increase for water-quality programs. The additional dollars would not establish new programs, but bolster existing efforts, said Kathryn Hohmann, director of the Club’s Environmental Quality Program. Congress must approve the proposed budget. 
    Hohmann says the president’s recognition of the dangers of polluted runoff — also called nonpoint source pollution — is significant. 

    “When I came to Washington in 1990, nobody was talking about polluted runoff. You just did not say that corporate agriculture was a polluter,” said Hohmann. “Now the administration is saying we need to get a handle on runoff, such as the manure that comes from hog factories — and that’s an important step.” 

    Nonpoint sources of pollution include oil and chemicals from urban streets, fertilizers and pesticides from agricultural operations, animal waste from industrial hog and chicken facilities, and air pollution carried in rain. Unlike a visible factory pipe that spews industrial sludge into a river, these sources can be difficult to locate and widespread. 
    Robin Mann, chair of the Club’s Wetlands/Clean Water Campaign, praised the plan for its strategies to curb runoff. “We are also cautiously applauding the president’s announced commitment to achieving net gains in wetlands, but we would really like to have heard him say the gains will be made by cutting back quick-and-easy permitting of wetlands destruction, as well as by restoration. The goals in the plan appear to be inconsistent with early steps in revising the permitting process.” 

    In 1997, the Clinton administration decided to phase out the worst of its quick permits for wetlands destruction — Nationwide Permit 26, which allowed the dredging and filling of thousands of acres of the nation’s wetlands. 

    “The Army Corps of Engineers, which administers the permit program, approves 95 percent of permit requests within 20 days,” said Hohmann. “It’s a lottery in which no one loses. It’s a program that cries out for reform because it adds to suburban sprawl, loss of green space and coastal wetlands destruction.” 

    A system to replace Nationwide Permit 26 has been drafted, but, said Hohmann, “at this point in the process it looks like it’s worse than the original. We’ll work with the administration to get something different on the table, but they’re under pressure from developers, the oil industry, roadbuilders and utilities. Those folks are used to rubber-stamp permits.” 

    “The Clinton administration is poised to give with one hand and take away with the other,” said Mann. “We have to force them to link the two and realistically pursue the proposal for a net gain. Overall, this action plan is a worthy proposal that can add up to better, safer water quality for America. But the administration has to fight for its approval in the budget-appropriations process, or it will die as a hollow initiative.” 

    To take action: Contact your representative and senators and tell them to support full funding for the Clean Water Action Plan.   

    For more information: Contact Robin Mann at (610) 527-4598, or 
    Kathryn Hohmann at (202) 675-7916, 

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