A directive from the Clinton Administration to clean up 21,000 impaired lakes, rivers and streams — about 40 percent of all U.S. waterways — which places additional environmental and financial pressures on farmers as well as on the states required to do the cleanup, may get shot down.

A National Academy of Sciences (NAS) review panel has found that the Clinton Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) instructed states to clean up thousands of waterways without enough scientific evidence to assure that the right bodies of water were being targeted. The report concluded that state and federal officials, often rushing to meet deadlines after losing lawsuits from environmental groups, may have targeted the wrong bodies of water for cleanup. “Many waters now on state lists were placed there without the benefit of adequate water quality standards, data or water body assessments,” listed the report.

Although the NAS panel agreed that water pollution is a serious problem, the panel urged the EPA to revamp the program and develop a “more science-based approach” to better focus state efforts and reduce the cost of the program.

In the report, the NAS panel also:

  • Criticized the broad selection criteria used — whether or not a body of water is suitable for swimming or fishing — to determine if the water body is impaired and in need of cleanup.
  • Suggested the use of a two-tiered approach in which water bodies are placed on a preliminary list before being elevated to a priority target list for action.
  • Suggested that Congress should authorize matching funds to help states pay for the cleanup.

The regulations, which target non-point pollution from storm water and agricultural runoff, stem from requirements within the Clean Water Act. However, when the regulations were issued last fall, states complained about the scope and cost of the program, while agricultural and manufacturing interests pressed Congress to intervene. Congress then suspended implementation of the new environmental regulations and asked the National Academy of Science for its review.

The report is expected to provide support for changes sought by the Bush Administration and some members in Congress.

San Jose Mercury News, Associated Press