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Monday, October 15, 2012

Water Quality Issues in the 112th Congress: Oversight and Implementation

Claudia Copeland
Specialist in Resources and Environmental Policy

Much progress has been made in achieving the ambitious goals that Congress established nearly 40 years ago in the Clean Water Act (CWA) to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters. However, 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 the role of the federal government in assisting 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 111th Congress, the House passed H.R. 1262 to reauthorize the CWA’s State Revolving Fund (SRF) program to finance wastewater infrastructure, and a companion bill, S. 1005, was approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. No legislation was enacted. Reauthorization legislation has been introduced again in the 112th Congress (H.R. 3145).

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 have 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 111th Congress, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved a bill that sought to clarify but not expand the CWA’s geographic scope (S. 787). Because some stakeholders believe that the bills would expand federal jurisdiction—not simply clarify it—the bills were controversial, and no legislation was enacted. In contrast to approaches reflected in earlier proposals, bills in the 112th Congress would narrow the scope of the act’s jurisdiction (S. 2122/H.R. 4304).

These issues have drawn interest in the 112th Congress, as well. In addition, a number of other CWA issues have been the subject of congressional oversight and legislation, with some legislators highly critical of recent regulatory initiatives and others more supportive of EPA’s actions. Among the topics of interest are environmental and economic impacts of Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts, federal promulgation of water quality standards in Florida, regulation of surface coal mining activities in Appalachia, and other CWA regulatory actions. Congressional interest in several of these issues has been reflected in debate over policy provisions of legislation to provide appropriations for EPA in FY2012 (P.L. 112-74) and FY2013 (H.R. 6091).

Date of Report: October 5, 2012
Number of Pages: 27
Order Number: R41594
Price: $29.95

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