Finishing the Job of Cleaning Up Our Nation's Water

An opinion/editorial by former U.S. Senator Howard H. Baker, Jr. Senator Baker is former majority leader of the U.S. Senate and also has served as White House chief-of-staff.

Published May 1996

With the arrival of the Memorial Day weekend, much of America begins the summer vacation season. Many of us travel to our great national parks, others head for the beaches. Some will go sailing, while still others seek out a favorite spot to fish. All of us, in one way or another, will enjoy the benefits of the hard work our nation put into cleaning up and protecting our lakes, rivers, and coastlines.

It has not been an easy task. It began back in 1899, when a Republican President, William McKinley, signed into law criminal penalties for discharging waste into our rivers. Subsequent statutes were enacted over the succeeding 70 years, each increasing the role of government in protecting our nation's waters. In 1972, during a Republican Administration, we created what has become known as the Clean Water Act. Senator Muskie from Maine and I were instrumental in passing that landmark legislation. Now almost 25 years later, we can all look back with pride on what has been achieved. In most places, beaches are safe for our children, fish are safe to eat, and our rivers are open for recreation.

But we're not finished. We have a tough job ahead to complete the task and protect us from new problems as they arise. We also have to look for new ways to do it. Yesterday's problems were successfully addressed by the type of federal involvement and national level regulation that I supported back in 1972. But the balance of the problem facing us is quite different than that which we faced then. In large measure our most significant unsolved water quality problems today stem from thousands of daily decisions made by suburbanites and farmers alike. It's how we apply weedkiller to our lawns and fertilizer to our fields. It's whether we dump our car's used engine oil down the storm sewer and effectively manage the manure produced by the livestock on our farms.

Today all levels of government --- federal, state and local alike-- have much greater experience in what works and what doesn't than they did in 1972. As a people, we have grown to better understand how important a healthy environment is to our common future and how significant the challenge is to getting there.

Unfortunately, the Clinton Administration seems unable or unwilling to invest the necessary trust in a new approach, building on what we've learned through our accomplishments, and based on partnerships between the states, individual citizens and the private sector. It is still hung up on the big government solutions that got us this far, but will not enable us to finish the job.

We should not abandon the successful approaches of the past, but neither should we expect that by stubbornly pushing them harder and harder they will get us where we need and want to go. A rigid adherence to the formulas of the past will not achieve the incremental environmental progress that is legitimately needed and valued by the public. That approach will also result in higher costs at every level of government and provide more horror stories about misguided federal regulations.

Our national clean water goal of fishable and swimmable waters that we set in the 1972 Clean Water Act is still important, but more big government is not the answer. Rather, we must embark on a new approach. We need to free our nation's Governors to find solutions that make sense and work best in their states. We need to come together in our communities to take actions to protect our local watersheds and in doing so respect the freedom of the individual and foster the responsibility that goes along with such freedom. And while enforcement of our laws is of vital importance, it is also necessary to give those who must comply the flexibility to find the best, most effective ways of keeping our rivers, lakes and coastlines clean.

Protecting the nation's waters is a goal we all share. Meeting today's challenges with new approaches must be our priority. These are principles that lie at the heart of being a Republican. During the coming months as the election nears, we will hear many claims and statements about protecting the environment. Actions, however, speak louder than words. Our nation's Governors, in partnership with environmental decision makers and the private sector, are working hard to develop new approaches for solving our remaining water quality problems. I encourage them to continue their efforts and bring their knowledge of what works and what doesn't to Congress for action.

Improving the framework for environmental improvement takes courage and leadership and change is critically needed as we step up to today's challenges. As Senator Dole said in his Earth Day address last month, "The future of environmental initiatives is at the state and local level." As President, Bob Dole will provide the practical, responsible and truthful leadership needed to take this experience and transform our environmental policies for the next century.

I'm proud of what we've achieved. By building on our progress and looking to the future for new initiative to enhance the environment we will ensure that the citizens and communities who treasure and rely upon our vital water resources are made equal partners in the process. Together we can finish the job we began 25 years ago.

--The Environmental Policy Task Force is a project of The National Center for Public Policy Research * 20 F Street, NW #700 * Washington, D.C. 20001 * Tel. (202) 507-6398 * (301) 498-1301 * E-mail: * Web: ###

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