Memorandum of Disapproval of the Bill Amending the Clean Water Act

November 6, 1986

I am withholding my approval of S. 1128, the "Water Quality Act of 1986.''

On March 26, 1985, Lee M. Thomas, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, sent to the Congress a proposal to amend and reauthorize appropriations under the Clean Water Act. As that proposal demonstrated, this administration remains committed to the act's objectives, and I am proud that we can report remarkable progress in this massive national cleanup effort.

Unfortunately, this bill so far exceeds acceptable levels of intended budgetary commitments that I must withhold my approval. Central to my proposal of last year was the phasing out over a period of 4 years and the termination by 1990 of the huge sewage treatment grant program. With the backlog of needed treatment plants financed in major part by the Federal Government since 1972, it is now necessary for the Federal Government to reduce its expenditures and complete the transition from Federal to State and local responsibility. The Environmental Protection Agency has already spent $44 billion to assist municipalities in meeting a need that was estimated to be $18 billion when the program was established in 1972. My proposal would have extended another $6 billion to finish the projects that had been started with Federal funds.

Notwithstanding my recommendations, S. 1128 would authorize $18 billion, or triple the amount I requested for that grant program, expand the allowable uses of Federal funds, and continue Federal grants for another 9 years. By 1993, S. 1128 would increase outlays by as much as $10 billion over the projections in my 1987 budget and would reverse important reforms enacted in 1981 that targeted funds to the completion of construction of sewage treatment plants -- the program's original and principal remaining purpose.

S. 1128 makes several programmatic changes that would improve the overall Clean Water Act, including expanded Federal enforcement authorities and an easing of the regulatory and financial burden on cities in dealing with stormwater discharges. We will work diligently with the 100th Congress to address these concerns. S. 1128 also would authorize some new programs -- at a 5-year total of $500 million -- that my administration has strongly opposed. Principal among them is the reinstatement of a Federal financial assistance program to pay for local plans to control diffuse sources of pollution. Over $500 million was spent on a similar program between 1973 and 1981, with little or no positive result. Restarting expensive planning grant programs that have failed in the past is not justifiable.

For these reasons, I cannot approve S. 1128. I must emphasize, however, that my action will have no impact on the current conduct of water pollution control programs under the Clean Water Act. All regulatory, enforcement, and permit issuance activities will continue under permanent law. Although authorization to appropriate for the sewage treatment grant program and other grant and research programs expired between 1983 and 1985, funds have been appropriated for them annually, and they are funded in the continuing resolution for 1987.

My administration will work closely with the next Congress to pass acceptable legislation. We will continue our commitment to improve and protect our nation's water quality by working with the Congress to modify current law to help cities handle stormwater discharge permits.

Ronald Reagan

The White House,

November 6, 1986.