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Clean water: hard act to follow?

This week's congressional override of President Reagan's veto of the Clean Water Act was a major victory for environmentalists. While some say it will be difficult to achieve similar victories on other environmental measures, others claim the bill is only the first passenger on what promises to be a powerful environmental bandwagon. ``The time for defense is over,'' says Brent Blackwelder, vice-president of the Environmental Policy Institute. ``We are going to stake out our own programs and have a much better chance of overcoming White House opposition.''

Sources in the Environmental Protection Agency say they do not think the override promises a flood of new legislation. Other bills due for consideration this session, like the Clean Air Act, are very contentious.

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``Once they open it up, it will be a free-for-all,'' says one official. In this view, other bills have not reached the same level of consensus as the Clean Water Act and therefore will not be so easy to bring to a vote.

David Zwick, executive director of the Clean Water Action Project, says he thinks future success ``depends on the momentum over the next 100 days on other environmental legislation.'' Frederic D. Krupp, executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund, agrees: ``It is unlikely the environmental community will get the same kind of majority on other measures. But there is a good chance they will get greater support.''

``Reagan is an environmental lame duck,'' says Sierra Club spokeswoman Adrienne Weisman. Other environmentalists call the vote an indication of a pro-environmental Congress more willing to stand up to the White House. Some of this confidence is based on the fact that the Clean Water Act was one of only seven overrides of some 60 Reagan vetoes.

Even some Republican members of Congress agree that the overrride dealt the administration was a major defeat. Only 26 Republicans in the House and 14 members of the Senate (one Democrat) supported the President.

Mr. Reagan vetoed the bill last week, calling it just more ``waste and pork'' from Capitol Hill. Supporters of the bill, including the vast majority of Republican members, refer to the act as landmark environmental legislation desired by most Americans.

But the Clean Water Act is popular in Congress for two reasons, only one of which is environmental. A vote for clean water is very popular back home. Equally important for many congressmen are the new jobs and general economic stimulus the legislation brings to every state.

The bill authorizes $9.6 billion in federal construction grants, paying for 55 percent of the costs of sewage treatment facilities. In a move to attract Republican supporters, the bill phases out the grants program in 1991, replacing it with $8.4 billion in revolving loan funds run by the states. Repayments from early loans will finance subsequent projects.

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The act also authorizes $2 billion to clean up estuaries, lakes, and rivers and to identify and clean up toxic pollutants in water. States are given 18 months to develop plans to control ``non-point pollution,'' such as petroleum residue from city streets and chemicals from agricultural land which run off after a rain. Water pollution controls are tightened and new pollution programs established.

The $20 billion the bill authorizes is a target for spending. A set of committees different from those that passed the measure will determine the dollars ``appropriated.'' One close observer of these appropriations committees is concerned that not all the money will be provided. The administration will certainly request less than the authorization level, and some environmentalists think the chairmen of the committees will want to put more money into their favoite housing programs at the expense of environmental measures.

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