As the Clean Water Act marked its 40th anniversary on Oct. 18, environmental groups and congressional Republicans took the occasion to voice their sharply differing concerns about how the landmark law will be applied in the near future.

The conflicting birthday messages come less than three weeks before the Nov. 6 elections, the outcomes of which will play a large role in determining future Clean Water Act legislation and regulations.

Both sides acknowledge the improvements in water quality since the law went on the books in 1972. However, green organizations contend GOP legislators in Congress are attempting to weaken the water statute. For their part, Republican legislators blast the Obama administration, especially the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for what they view as overly aggressive regulatory actions.

In a telephone press conference that environmental groups held on Oct. 17, Steve Fleischli, Natural Resources Defense Counsel senior attorney for water programs, said, “Unfortunately, the GOP and corporate interests are fighting hard to roll back the Clean Water Act.”

He cites Republican-backed stand-alone bills and policy-related amendments, or riders, that aim to bar funding for EPA to issue water regulations.

Fleischli also says coming mandatory spending cuts under budget sequestration will hurt water programs, unless Congress acts to delay or cancel the reductions. A Sept. 14 Office of Management and Budget report said EPA’s main water-infrastructure account faces a cut of 8.2%, or $293 million, on Jan. 2, under the sequestration.

Jan Goldman-Carter, National Wildlife Foundation wetlands and water-resources counsel, says net wetlands acreage gains in the early 2000s have begun to reverse. The most recent U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service wetlands status report, released in October 2011, said the lower 48 states had a net loss of 62,300 acres, or 0.1%, of wetlands in the 2004-09 period. The previous Fish & Wildlife report showed a small net increase in wetlands.

On the other hand, two House Republicans—Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (Fla.) and Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment Chairman Bob Gibbs (Ohio)—in an Oct 18 statement said, “Overzealous EPA bureaucrats and some activists … have hijacked a noble mission [the Clean Water Act] and turned it into a nightmare for state and local governments and consumers who pay more for water and more for unnecessary federal intervention.”

Another leading GOP critic of the EPA, Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), issued a report on Oct. 18 outlining what he referred to as “job-killing” pending environmental regulations that he expects the Obama administration, if it wins, to release after the Nov. 6 elections.

These regulations include Clean Water Act guidance that would “expand federal control over virtually every body of water in the United States, no matter how small,” Inhofe says.