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Water: a federal concern

HOW clean is your drinking water? If you are like most Americans, you probably trust that the water flowing through your kitchen tap is as pure as is reasonably possible.

Unfortunately, as news reports often indicate, that is not always so.

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The issue of clean water ought not be raised in such a way as to invoke public fear. At the same time, precisely because of all the industrial and private sources of pollution that have arisen in our urbanized, technological society, it seems only prudent that government agencies take all possible steps to ensure that drinking water is fit for public consumption.

In this regard, one cannot help being dismayed at reports that some administration officials are considering a plan to gut the Safe Drinking Water Act and return regulatory authority for the nation's drinking water to the states. The rationale, on the part of these officials, is twofold. Their first point is that since a number of laws already control the sources of water pollution, at the plant site, for example, an additional law is not needed to deal with water at the point of supply - the tap. Second, they argue, additional legislation will only result in additional costs at a time of budget constraint.

The existing national legislation regulating drinking water is the Safe Drinking Water Act, enacted in 1974. The act requires the Environmental Protection Agency to set standards involving a number of pollutants. When the measure came up for reauthorization late last year, the House, by a 366-to-27 vote, sought to strengthen and upgrade the existing regulation. The White House objected to the House measure, arguing that the bill encroached on the jurisdiction of states and local governments. A compromise was finally worked out between the House and a Senate committee but was derailed during the final days of Congress.

In the meantime, the old program involving drinking water standards continues under a congressional appropriation.

The relatively tough House-passed bill deserved - and still deserves - enactment. Still, barring the likelihood that an environmentally strengthened measure will gain quick legislative approval, it is important that - at the very least - the existing regulatory framework be continued. To move regulatory authority back to the states, letting the states set clean drinking water standards, would be unwise.

Saying that is not to impugn any state or local government. Rather, it is to recognize that the flow of water in the United States tends to be indifferent to state and local boundaries. Ensuring clean and pure drinking water should remain a federal responsibility.

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