98-150: The Clean Water Action Plan:
Background and Early Implementation
Specialist in Environmental Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
Updated May 3, 1999
In October 1997, Vice President Gore directed federal agencies to develop a Clean Water
Initiative to improve and strengthen water pollution control efforts. The multi-agency
plan was released on Feb. 19, 1998, and identifies more than 100 key actions. Most are
existing activities, now labeled as part of the Initiative. The President's FY1999 budget
requested $2.2 billion for five departments and agencies ($568 million more than in
FY1998) to fund implementation. By October 1998, Congress passed bills to fund the plan,
but appropriations provided $1.8 billion, or less than 15%, of the requested increases. In
the meantime, however, federal agencies are beginning or accelerating activities to carry
out the actions under the Plan. These activities are discussed in this report. For related
analyses, see CRS Report 98-745, Clean Water Action Plan:
Budgetary Initiatives. This report will be updated as developments warrant.
Introduction and Background
In October 1997, on the 25th anniversary of the Clean Water Act (CWA), Vice
President Al Gore announced an initiative intended to build on the environmental successes
of that Act and to address the nation's remaining water quality challenges. While much
progress has been made in achieving the ambitious goals of the law to restore and maintain
the chemical, physical and biological integrity of rivers, lakes, and coastal waters,
problems persist. Based on the limited water quality monitoring that is done by states, it
is estimated that about 40% of those waters do not meet applicable water quality
standards. The types of remaining water quality problems, especially runoff from farms and
ranches, city streets, and other diffuse sources, are more complex than is controlling
pollution discharged from the end of pipes at factories and sewage treatment plants.
The Vice President directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S.
Department of Agriculture (USDA) to coordinate the work of other federal agencies to
develop an Action Plan within 120 days to improve and strengthen water pollution control
efforts across the country. ("Notice of Vice President Gore's Clean Water
Initiatives," 62 Federal Register 60447-60449, Nov. 7, 1997). It was to
focus on three goals: enhanced protection from public health threats posed by water
pollution, more effective control of polluted runoff, and promotion of water quality
protection on a watershed basis. The Departments of Commerce and Interior and the U.S.
Army Corps of Engineers also have roles. The purpose of the Action Plan is to coordinate
federal efforts to achieve the three goals. Over all, the Initiative seeks primarily to
address the wide range of activities that cause nonpoint source pollution (polluted
runoff), including agriculture, mining, urban development, and forestry. EPA and states
believe polluted runoff causes more than one-half of remaining water quality problems.
Agriculture is believed responsible for the largest portion of water quality impairments
due to polluted runoff.
The Action Plan
President Clinton and Vice President Gore released the Action Plan on Feb. 19, 1998
(the text is available at http://www.cleanwater.gov/).
The components of the plan, more than 100 actions, correspond to specific elements
identified by the Vice President in October 1997. It consists mainly of existing programs,
including some planned regulatory actions that agencies have had underway, now to be
enhanced with increased funding or accelerated with performance-specific deadlines.
The President's FY1999 budget identified the Clean Water Action Plan as a high priority
for environmental programs. It requested a total of $2.2 billion--a $568 million, or 35%,
increase over 1998--for multi-agency funding of a Clean Water and Watershed Restoration
Initiative. By October 1998, Congress had passed FY1999 appropriations bills to fund the
Plan. Over all, the enacted bills provided $1.8 billion, with less than 15% of the
increased funds sought by the Administration. In the President's FY2000 budget request,
the Administration seeks $458 million in increases ($2.275 billion total) for the Plan.
(For additional information, see CRS Report 98-745 Clean Water
Action Plan: Budgetary Initiatives.) Components of the Action Plan announced in
February 1998 fit into eight categories.
Protecting public health. The Initiative directed EPA and the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to assure that fish and shellfish are safe
to eat, including steps to reduce the need for fish consumption advisories. Advisories are
a risk management tool used by states and localities to inform the public on the health
risks of consuming chemically contaminated fish and shellfish. The Plan seeks increased
enforcement and assistance to states to control discharges contaminating fish and
shellfish, beaches, and drinking water sources. It calls for a national survey of
contaminants in fish and shellfish by the year 2000, and it also calls for new water
quality criteria and state standards to ensure that beaches are safe.
Controlling polluted runoff. The Initiative called for EPA to develop
and implement water quality criteria for nitrogen and phosphorous, major pollutants
associated with runoff, by the year 2000. These criteria would help states set
site-specific standards to control nutrient pollution and thus reduce nutrient loadings to
rivers and lakes.
The Initiative also directed EPA to update existing CWA regulations for animal feeding
operations and to issue final regulations for managing stormwater runoff. EPA already had
planned to revise regulations that limit animal waste discharges from large feeding
operations; current rules were issued in 1975. In 1998, EPA proposed permit rules for
small urban stormwater discharges. When these rules are final in 1999, they will complete
EPA's program to regulate stormwater discharges from large and small cities. These
elements are included in the Action Plan, which also directs increased grant funding to
assist states and Indian tribes in managing polluted runoff.
Incentives for private land stewardship. Both the Initiative and the
Action Plan call for increased incentives and assistance to help farmers control polluted
runoff and encourage conservation of critical private lands. The Initiative called for
USDA to work with states to implement the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP)
to ensure that as many agreements as practicable will address critical water quality, soil
erosion, and fish and wildlife habitat needs. The Conservation Reserve Program,
established in the 1985 farm bill, assists owners and operators of highly erodible
cropland in conserving and improving soil and water resources. CREP, added by the 1996
farm bill, expands on it. USDA will partner with states and localities to provide
cost-share and technical assistance for long-term protection of environmentally-sensitive
The Initiative directed USDA to develop a strategy so that agricultural producers in
1,000 critical rural watersheds have the technical and financial assistance needed to
abate polluted runoff and comply with applicable standards. In that regard, the Plan and
the FY1999 and FY2000 budgets target new resources to help farmers. The Plan also calls
for creating 2 million miles of buffer zones, to protect waterways from agricultural
runoff, and developing pollution prevention plans covering more than 35 million acres by
New resources for watershed-based actions. The Plan calls for joint
efforts with states, local communities, and tribes to identify watersheds that are not
meeting clean water goals and to set restoration priorities. The concept of managing water
quality and resources on a watershed basis, as a framework for considering the highest
priority water-related problems within geographic areas, rather than areas defined by
political boundaries, has emerged in public and private sector efforts to address water
quality impairments. The Plan seeks expanded funding (grants and technical assistance) to
support local organizations that promote watershed partnerships and to support
implementation of pollution controls on the basis of watershed approaches.
Restoring and protecting wetlands. The Plan calls for a coordinated
strategy to achieve a net gain of as many as 100,000 acres of wetlands annually by the
year 2005. This is likely to be one of the more difficult elements to implement since it
requires reversing current wetlands losses, which are estimated to be 80,000 to 120,000
acres annually. The Plan also calls for a 50% increase in wetlands restored and enhanced
by the Corps of Engineers and increased enrollment of acres for wetlands restoration under
USDA conservation programs. Data on wetland acreage, especially the rate and pattern of
wetland loss, are imperfect and often controversial. The Plan calls for a new interagency
system to more accurately track wetland loss, as well as restoration and creation.
Protecting coastal waters. One-half of the U.S. population lives
within 50 miles of the coast, an area that comprises only 20% of the nation's total land.
The cumulative impact of man's activities in the coastal environment has resulted in water
quality degradation, habitat losses, and declines of living resources. Polluted runoff is
a major source of coastal water pollution and one of the primary factors associated with
outbreaks of harmful algal blooms such as Pfiesteria in coastal waters. The Plan
calls for a coordinated response to support state and local efforts during events such as
outbreaks of harmful algal blooms. Major federal efforts in this regard have been underway
since mid-1997, following a Pfiesteria outbreak in Maryland and nearby coastal
In more specific terms, NOAA and EPA were directed to ensure that all state Coastal
Nonpoint Pollution Control Programs are in place by mid-1998, and are fully approved by
Dec. 31, 1999. The Coastal Zone Act Reauthorization Amendments of 1990 (CZARA) directed
coastal and Great Lakes states to develop nonpoint pollution plans as part of overall
coastal zone management programs.
Expanding citizens' right to know. The Action Plan calls for several
actions to increase citizens' understanding of the health of their waterways. One
particular focus is Internet-based systems to provide information on watersheds nationwide
and on watershed programs and services. EPA has had such information available on its
Internet site for some time, and, along with other agencies, will presumably be working to
enhance it (see http://www.epa.gov/surf/).
In this regard, the Plan calls for point source dischargers (industrial and municipal
facilities) to provide standardized reporting and monitoring of pollution discharge
information to support watershed planning. It also calls for a national report that will
identify gaps in the monitoring and assessment of sources and impacts of polluted runoff.
Enhanced federal stewardship. The concept underlying these elements of
the Plan is that the federal government, through its stewardship of public lands, should
be as responsible as private landowners in protecting water quality and the health of
aquatic ecosystems on federal lands. Federal agencies often are criticized for supporting
or authorizing activities on public lands that are environmentally harmful. As part of the
Initiative, lands and facilities owned, managed, or controlled by federal agencies will be
national models for control of polluted runoff and effective watershed planning
The Plan calls for a number of actions affecting federal lands, including relocation
and improved water quality protection for 2,000 miles of roads and trails a year through
2005 and removal or decommissioning of 5,000 miles a year by 2002. These actions in the
Plan are consistent with efforts already underway by the Forest Service regarding roads on
National Forest System lands. It also calls for accelerated efforts by land management
agencies to improve or restore 25,000 miles of stream corridor by 2005.
Early Implementation of the Clean Water Action Plan
Federal officials estimated that the ambitious agenda presented in the Plan would
require 25 years for full implementation. They also believe that, once started, the Plan
will quickly move from the federal to state and local levels. Even while Congress
considered FY1999 and FY2000 appropriations bills to fund it, EPA and other federal
agencies are beginning or accelerating their activities under the Plan. In February 1999,
on the first anniversary of release of the Action Plan, the Administration issued a report
describing accomplishments to date. Many of the accomplishments, however, are only first
steps in processes that will be lengthy, especially in terms of impacting water quality
improvements. Since many of the specific items in the Plan and half of the budgetary
resources are focusing on partnerships with states, localities, and individuals,
accomplishments depend greatly on actions taken by multiple stakeholders.
EPA Activities. Of the 100-plus actions in the Plan, many involve core
clean water programs for which EPA is primarily responsible.
A significant aspect of the Plan is a focus on watersheds as the basis of water quality
problem identification and decision making. In June 1998, EPA released a Unified Watershed
Assessment Framework to assist states, tribes and others with the process called for in
the Plan of identifying watersheds that do not meet clean water and other natural resource
goals and where prevention action is needed to sustain water quality and aquatic
resources. In response, states submitted watershed assessment reports by October 1, 1998.
Priority waters identified by these assessments will be the focus of funding increases in
FY1999 and future appropriations.
Nutrients, in appropriate amounts, are essential to the health and functioning of
aquatic ecosystems. In excessive amounts, however, nutrients contribute to excess growth
of algae, leading to oxygen declines which harm aquatic species. State water quality
reports indicate that over-enrichment of waters by nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) is
the biggest overall source of impairment of the nation's waters. EPA is to publish numeric
water quality criteria (scientific information concerning harmful levels of a pollutant)
for nutrients by the year 2000. In June 1998, EPA released a national strategy for
developing criteria and standards for nutrients, which will be used by states to develop
nutrient provisions of state water quality standards.
Several actions in the Plan relate to ensuring that beaches are safe for swimming. In
spring 1998, EPA conducted a first annual national survey concerning monitoring and public
health risks posed by contaminated beach water and has posted local beach quality
information on the Internet (http://www.epa.gov/ost/beaches/).
In April 1999, EPA announced a 5-year comprehensive plan for improvements to beach
monitoring programs, standards, public access, and research.
To implement the Plan's goal of having a nationally consistent process for monitoring
the health of fish and communicating fish consumption advisories, EPA is consulting with
state environmental, public health, and natural resource agencies, plus tribal leaders,
asking them to review their existing fish advisory program and compare it to the EPA's
National Guidance on Fish Consumption Advisories.
Joint or Other Federal Agency Activities. Many actions in the Plan
involve other federal agencies, either alone or jointly with EPA. A key purpose of the
Plan is to coordinate the several federal agencies and their state partners that have
water quality program responsibilities.
A key element of the Plan, minimizing public health and environmental impacts of runoff
from animal feeding operations (AFOs) into rivers, lakes, and estuaries, was addressed
when EPA and USDA issued a national AFO strategy March 9, 1999. It contains a number of
short-term and long-term steps to improve compliance and strengthen existing regulations,
obtain better information water quality impairments due to AFOs, and together with other
federal agencies and states, coordinate activities related to AFOs. It proposes that all
AFOs, regardless of size, should develop and implement comprehensive nutrient management
plans by 2009. The plans would include manure handling and storage, application of manure
to land, recordkeeping, feed management, land management, and other manure-use options.
Officials estimate that 95% of all AFOs will be encouraged to voluntarily implement
nutrient management plans, while 15,000 to 20,000 large-scale operations will be required
to develop the plans as part of CWA discharge permits. Also, EPA will work with states on
a 2-phase approach for permitting animal feedlot operations: requiring coverage of
large-scale operations by permits by 2005; and revising existing regulations by 2002. (For
additional information, see CRS Report 98-451, Animal Waste
Management and the Environment: Background for Current Issues.)
EPA and NOAA met the June 1998 deadline in the Plan to conditionally approve all 29 of
the submitted state Coastal Nonpoint Pollution Control Programs under the Coastal Zone Act
Reauthorization Amendments of 1990. The two agencies also revised guidance for this
program, granting states an extended timeframe (15 years) to achieve full implementation
of measures to manage coastal nonpoint pollution. Next steps involve working with state
coastal zone management and nonpoint pollution agencies to implement their programs for
reducing polluted runoff in coastal areas and work towards full program approval.
The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) is a state-federal conservation
partnership program targeted to address specific state and nationally significant water
quality, soil erosion, and wildlife habitat issues related to agricultural use. The Farm
Service Agency of USDA released final guidelines on CREP. As of April 1999, USDA has
approved programs in seven states (Maryland, Minnesota, Washington, Oregon, Illinois, New
York, and North Carolina) and is considering five other proposals.
Fifteen agencies, led by USDA, collaborated on a manual for use in restoring the
natural ecology of streams and rivers. Twelve watersheds in need of restoration will be
chosen to demonstrate these techniques in 1999.
A prerequisite to achieving the Plan's goal of a net gain of wetlands resources is
reliable systems to collect and analyze data on losses and gains in the nation's wetlands
inventory. Currently, several such systems exist that have different purposes and yield
different results. In May 1998, the interagency White House Wetlands Working Group issued
a final plan for developing a single, improved wetlands status and trends report to be
issued by 2000.
So far, Congress has considered the Clean Water Action Plan primarily through the
appropriations process, as spending decisions were made about the FY1999 budget requests
and others for FY2000 to fund the Plan are considered (see CRS Report 98-745 Clean Water Action Plan: Budgetary Initiatives). When it
was presented in February 1998, the Plan was not accompanied by legislative proposals to
reauthorize the Clean Water Act or other statutes or enact new laws to carry it out.
Beyond the appropriations process, it has attracted limited attention by the Congress.
Interest groups and stakeholders involved with water quality programs have generally
supported the policy and specific actions in the Plan. However, some of the actions, such
as the recent EPA-USDA strategy concerning animal feeding operations, could be
controversial and, thus, could draw more congressional attention in the future.