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Lawmakers urge Bush not to alter Clean Water Act rules

WASHINGTON -- Half the 435-member House, including 26 Republicans, wrote President Bush yesterday urging him to scrap his administration's efforts to change Clean Water Act regulations that could reduce the scope of waterways protected nationwide.

Bush's environmental adviser, Jim Connaughton, said no decision has been made yet about whether to go ahead with new rules that are just "a very small part" of the president's strategy for protecting wetlands in 30 federal programs.

In the letter, 218 House members, including all but 14 of 205 Democrats, said Bush's preliminary efforts "represent attempts to remove federal protection from waters -- including many streams, wetlands, and natural ponds -- that have been covered by the Clean Water Act for decades."

The Environmental Protection Agency began a new process in January that could result in redefining what bodies of water should be protected. It also issued guidelines for federal wetlands regulators to use in interpreting a Supreme Court ruling two years ago that cast doubt on protections for wetlands unconnected to larger waters.

EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman said the agency hasn't decided what to do yet, because it is still reviewing 130,000 public comments about the proposal.

The efforts could lead to more water pollution, wetlands losses, and state financial burdens, according to Representatives John Dingell,Democrat of Michigan; Jim Saxton, Republican of New Jersey; Jim Leach, Republican of Iowa; and Jim Oberstar, Democrat of Minnesota, who gathered the signatures with help from environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, and National Wildlife Federation.

"Sometimes we lose sight of the basics, and clean water is an absolute basic," Leach said.

Dingell said the administration went beyond the court ruling, and "we do not want a rollback."

Environmentalists said those actions could result in a loss of federal protection for millions of acres of swamps and bogs considered "isolated" from larger water bodies.

But Connaughton, who chairs the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said, that the ruling affects fewer than 35,000 acres.

Bush remains committed to the concept of "no net loss" of wetlands set by his father in 1989, Connaughton said. The administration adopted new guidelines last year that emphasize the quality of wetlands being created.

Joining the Democrats in signing the letter were more than a tenth of the House's 229 Republicans and Representative Bernard Sanders of Vermont, the House's lone Independent.

In October, Senator Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, led 25 other senators in writing a similar letter to Bush. Feingold said yesterday that the EPA's actions could "leave our nation's most vulnerable streams and wetlands unprotected by the Clean Water Act."

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