WASHINGTON — Just more than half of the members of the House of Representatives on Tuesday urged President Bush to drop regulatory changes that could reduce the number of streams and wetlands protected under the Clean Water Act.
They asked the president in a letter to abandon a rulemaking process launched in January and to rescind guidance sent to regulators telling them how to interpret a 2001 Supreme Court ruling. The letter was signed by 218 legislators, including 26 Republicans.
"The Clean Water Act is a landmark piece of legislation which shouldn't be diluted," said Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.), one of the letter's authors. "Congress has few responsibilities greater than preserving clean water for future generations, and improving the quality of water damaged by many years of neglect."
The letter was one of the broadest congressional efforts to curb the string of actions the Bush administration has taken to ease environmental regulations. A similar letter was sent to the president by 26 senators, none of them Republicans.
"Excluding waters from the Clean Water Act will lead to unregulated discharges of pollution into streams, ponds and wetlands and, as this pollution flows downstream, greater pollution of our lakes, rivers and coastal waters," the letter from the House members declared.
Spokeswomen for the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency said the administration had not decided yet whether to rewrite the rule that defines which waters and wetlands are protected by the Clean Water Act. Officials continue to review the more than 130,000 comments responding to the administration's notice of proposed rulemaking. They stressed that whatever the decision, the president remained committed to the goal of no net loss of wetlands.
"We welcome the comments from the congressmen and will take them into account as we have not decided whether or not to proceed with a rulemaking," said James Connaughton, chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality.
This month, a senior government official provided the Los Angeles Times with a draft version of a new administration policy that would significantly narrow the scope of the Clean Water Act. Many wetlands, ephemeral streams not fed by ground water and intermittent streams that flow less than six months of the year would be stripped of federal pollution controls, potentially making them available to be filled in for development.
In releasing their letter, the legislators referred to The Times article and said the draft rule would eliminate all Clean Water Act safeguards for most waters and wetlands in the country.
Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) said he and other members of Congress would pass legislation if necessary to block the president from weakening the Clean Water Act, which Dingell had helped draft.
"Prior to that landmark legislation, rivers were catching on fire and fishermen dubbed Lake Erie the Dead Sea," Dingell said. "We have come too far to allow a rollback."
The administration's rulemaking exercise was triggered by a 2001 Supreme Court ruling that limited federal jurisdiction over isolated, non-navigable, intrastate waters and wetlands that were protected because migratory birds used them.
Lobbyists who represent business interests pointed to the spate of lawsuits that followed the court's decision as evidence that there was too much uncertainty about which waters and wetlands counted as "isolated." They said the administration must write a new rule.
"The Clean Water Act was not designed to regulate and give authority over every single drop of water in the United States," said Christopher Guith, U.S. Chambers of Commerce counsel.