WASHINGTON -- In a daylong visit to Baltimore today, President Clinton will unveil an ambitious and detailed blueprint for improving the quality of America's rivers, lakes and coastal waters, including the Chesapeake Bay.
The administration's $10.5 billion Clean Water Action Plan, obtained last night by The Sun, lists 110 "key action steps" intended to restore the estimated 40 percent of the nation's waterways that are too polluted for safe fishing or swimming.
"After 25 years of progress, the nation's clean water program is at a crossroads," the 106-page report states. "To fulfill the original goal of the Clean Water Act -- 'fishable and swimmable' water for every American -- the nation must chart a new course to address the pollution problems of the next generation."
The plan was produced by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Agriculture Department in response to an order issued by Vice President Al Gore on Oct. 18, the anniversary of Earth Day.
The Clean Water Act was last reauthorized in 1987 as a five-year commitment. Congress has continued appropriating money for water cleanup since the bill lapsed in 1992, but it has never updated the legislation. This means that the government's policies on water cleanup are based on assumptions that are more than 10 years old.
There are, as a result, no federal guidelines for such recent problems as Pfiesteria, the toxic algae-like microorganism blamed for fish kills and ailments among watermen in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. Nor are there guidelines to regulate the corporate "factory farms" that have produced enough hog waste in North Carolina to overwhelm some of that state's most prized rivers and creeks.
"We didn't know anything about Pfiesteria in 1987," said Tim Eichenberg, program counsel for the Center for Marine Conservation, a Washington-based environmental group. "We didn't know about factory farms. We need a new road map."
Congress does not have to pass the Clinton plan itself -- or heed the president's call for a reauthorization of the Clean Water Act. But the White House would need congressional approval for the increased levels of federal spending it envisions.
In his budget sent to Capitol Hill this month, Clinton called for $568 million -- a 35 percent increase -- in additional money for water cleanup in the coming fiscal year alone. His five-year plan envisions an increase of $2.3 billion.
Administration officials said the plan would mean $30 million to $40 million for Maryland over the next five years, money that would be used for such purposes as expanding the monitoring of the Chesapeake and reducing polluted runoff.
A coordinated effort to reduce polluted runoff from farms, subdivisions and golf courses is at the heart of the Clinton plan. Those sources, particularly cattle ranches and the high-tech chicken and pig operations, are producing runoff loaded with nitrogen and phosphorous -- pollutants that are thought to be responsible for problems ranging from Pfiesteria to the 6,000-square-mile oxygen-starved "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico.
"By far, the predominant source of remaining water pollution problems is runoff from urban and agricultural lands and facilities such as animal feeding operations and mines," the report says. "Watershed management holds promise for correcting the polluted runoff problems that now exist and, more importantly, to prevent polluted runoff in the first place."
To achieve this mission, the plan calls for virtually doubling in one year the EPA's spending on curbing such runoff.
One of the proven methods of reducing runoff involves the fairly simple -- but expensive -- process of paying farmers to establish woodland buffers between their fields and the tributaries that run through their lands.
Maryland has been promised $175 million in federal money -- the state must kick in $25 million -- for buffer projects over the next 15 years. The action plan cites the Maryland plan as a model -- and sets a goal for the Agriculture Department to establish 2 million miles of buffer zones on farmland by 2002.
Under the proposal, money is also earmarked for innovative approaches ranging from studying alternative uses for animal wastes to developing cost-effective methods to teach farmers how to apply fewer pesticides and fertilizers while still maintaining -- or even increasing -- crop yields.
"These steps are going to take a lot of money to implement, but in the end they'll produce better, more efficient and more environmentally conscious farming practices," said Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Republican who represents the Eastern Shore.