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Thursday, January 6, 2011

Water Quality Issues in the 111th Congress: Oversight and Implementation

Claudia Copeland
Specialist in Resources and Environmental Policy

Although much progress has been made in achieving the ambitious goals that Congress established more than 35 years ago in the Clean Water Act (CWA) to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters, long-standing problems persist, and new problems have emerged. Water quality problems are diverse, ranging from pollution runoff from farms and ranches, city streets, and other diffuse or “nonpoint” sources, to toxic substances discharged from factories and sewage treatment plants.

There is little agreement among stakeholders about what solutions are needed and whether new legislation is required to address the nation’s remaining water pollution problems. For some time, efforts to comprehensively amend the CWA have stalled as interests have debated whether and exactly how to change the law. Congress has instead focused legislative attention on enacting narrow bills to extend or modify selected CWA programs, but not any comprehensive proposals.

For several years, the most prominent legislative water quality issue has concerned financial assistance for municipal wastewater treatment projects. House and Senate committees have approved bills on several occasions, but, for various reasons, no legislation has been enacted. At issue has been how the federal government will assist states and cities in meeting needs to rebuild, repair, and upgrade wastewater treatment plants, especially in light of capital costs that are projected to be as much as $390 billion. In the 111
th Congress, interest in increased investment in public works infrastructure—including wastewater—in order to stimulate the faltering U.S. economy brought greater attention to water infrastructure issues. Acting quickly, in February 2009, Congress passed and the President signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (P.L. 111-5). Among its provisions, the legislation appropriated $4.0 billion in additional CWA assistance for wastewater projects. In addition, in March 2009, the House passed legislation to reauthorize the CWA’s State Revolving Fund (SRF) program to finance wastewater infrastructure and several related provisions of the act (H.R. 1262). A companion bill was approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in May 2009 (S. 1005).

Programs that regulate activities in wetlands also have been of interest, especially CWA Section 404, which has been criticized by landowners for intruding on private land-use decisions and imposing excessive economic burdens. Environmentalists view this regulatory program as essential for maintaining the health of wetland ecosystems, and they are concerned about court rulings that narrowed regulatory protection of wetlands and about related administrative actions. Many stakeholders desire clarification of the act’s regulatory jurisdiction, but they differ on what solutions are appropriate. In the 111
th Congress, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved a bill that sought to clarify but not expand the CWA’s geographic scope (the Clean Water Restoration Act, S. 787). A companion bill was introduced in the House (America’s Commitment to Clean Water Act, H.R. 5088). Because some stakeholders believe that the bills would expand federal jurisdiction—not simply clarify it—the bills were controversial.

The 111
th Congress considered a number of water quality issues through oversight and legislation. Two bills amending the CWA were enacted and are discussed. One dealt with extending a moratorium for CWA permitting of certain vessels (P.L. 111-215), and the other dealt with ensuring that federal agencies and departments pay localities for reasonable costs associated with managing stormwater pollution from federal properties (S. 3481).

Date of Report: December 28, 2010
Number of Pages: 34
Order Number: R40098
Price: $29.95

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