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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Water Quality Issues in the 113th Congress: An Overview

Claudia Copeland
Specialist in Resources and Environmental Policy

Much progress has been made in achieving the ambitious goals that Congress established 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 aid for municipal wastewater treatment projects. House and Senate committees have approved bills to reauthorize CWA assistance on several occasions since the 107
th Congress, but, for various reasons, no legislation other than appropriations 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 nearly $300 billion over the next 20 years.

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.

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. Some issues have drawn policymakers’ attention following court rulings that addressed and in several cases expanded the regulatory scope of water quality protection efforts under the law. 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 specific legislative proposals and debate over policy provisions of legislation to provide appropriations for EPA. In the 112
th Congress, Members from both parties raised questions about the cost-effectiveness of some of EPA’s actions and/or whether the agency has exceeded its authority. Similar attention to these issues is anticipated in the 113th Congress.

Date of Report: April 2, 2013
Number of Pages: 23
Order Number: R42883
Price: $29.95

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