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Environmentalists' appeal

An unlikely partnership has formed to stop the Bush administration from weakening clean water rules: hunters and environmentalists. It could be a potent duo. When 31 hunting and fishing organizations wrote a letter to the president, asking him to reconsider his administration's position, they were able to appeal to him as "a fellow hunter, fisherman and conservationist."

Of course, there is scant proof that the president is a conservationist. His agencies have been engaged in an unprecedented assault on environmental regulations and public land protections. In this case, the administration has used a narrow decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to justify a broad rule change that removes federal protection for ponds, streams and wetlands not directly linked to larger, navigable waterways.

They may sound like insignificant wetlands, but they aren't. These waters often flow seasonally into larger rivers, lakes and estuaries. They filter out pollutants and help control flooding. They also sustain wildlife, hence the interest of hunting and fishing enthusiasts. The new, permissive rules could ultimately threaten 20 percent or more of the nation's waters.

In the past, anyone wanting to fill or dump wastes in these ponds, streams or wetlands needed a permit. Now, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency have been directed not to enforce those rules, but if they feel they must, to seek permission from headquarters. In other words, polluters now have the upper hand in the regulatory process.

The administration has also indicated it wants to make those new rules permanent. If that happens, it would be a major setback for one of the most effective environmental laws in history _ the Clean Water Act. Before the act was passed in 1972, 70 percent of the nation's waters were too polluted for swimming or to support wildlife. Now, those percentages have been reduced to 39 percent of rivers and 45 percent of lakes.

So the work of cleaning up our waters isn't done. The rules change is a particular problem in Florida, where 70 percent of wetlands in the Panhandle could be exempt from protection under the proposed rules. No state is more dependent on the quality of its wetlands.

That is a good reason Florida's congressional delegation should sign a letter to President Bush asking him not to undermine the effectiveness of the Clean Water Act. Sens. Bob Graham and Bill Nelson have signed such a letter sent by the Senate, and Reps. Jim Davis, Peter Deutsch, Corrine Brown and Robert Wexler have signed the House letter. Their colleagues should join them.

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