It’s budget time again in the U.S. Congress. This year the federal legislature must decide what to do with a budget surplus. The House of Representatives has voted to fund more highways. Fiscal conservatives don’t want to spend it at all. President Clinton wants to use it for health care, social security and the environment. But what do the American people themselves want done with it?
Most Americans regard themselves as environmentalists, according to various polls taken during the last six years, and they say that clean water is the environmental problem about which they are most concerned. Members of Congress might want to pay attention to this sentiment and consider designating a little of the federal budget to programs that will help address our increasing problems with clean water.
The U.S. Senate has passed their budget and voted not to include the additional money — $568 million — that President Clinton had requested to fund the Clean Water Action Plan. This money would help communities in every state to clean up water polluted by fertilizers, pesticides, manure, mine tailings, sediments from poor forestry practices and urban runoff. The House of Representatives will be putting together its version of the budget when they return from their recess in late April. Hopefully they will give more support for state and local efforts to provide safe, clean water than the Senate.
America’s waterways have been fouled by decades of industrial pollution and agricultural and urban runoff. The Clean Water Action Plan will direct more money to states, localities and farmers to help with cleanup efforts. The Clean Water Act, which has not been updated in the past 10 years, does not do an adequate job of protecting our drinking water, our beaches, our lakes and our rivers. The Clean Water Action Plan provides a 35 percent increase in funding to use at the local level to clean up pollution in our water and prevent further damage to our drinking water sources.
Despite tremendous strides in cleaning our rivers, lakes and coastal waters, 40 percent of America’s waterways are still too polluted for fishing and swimming. We have increased the money devoted to health care, but the funding for the most important element to good health, clean water, remains unchanged.
Polluted runoff is the single biggest cause of water quality problems in the nation today. As we approach warmer weather we are going to see new fish kills in our rivers, streams and estuaries because of it.
While the Senate did not include funding for the Clean Water Action Program, it may be included in the House of Representatives’ budget, then becoming available for the various appropriations committees to use for clean water programs.
This is not a complicated issue. Americans care about having safe, clean water for their families and friends. The money is available for inclusion in the federal budget. The only obvious question is why the Senate did not leap at the opportunity to show its support for clean water. Without this modest down payment on our future, the president’s Clean Water Action Plan will remain just an idea — nothing more. And many communities will suffer as a result.
Debbie Ortman is an alumna of the University of Minnesota-Duluth. She is a member of Clean Water Action Minnesota.