The Environmental Protection Agency yesterday formally withdrew a Clinton administration rule that imposed federal oversight on states' efforts to clean up "impaired water bodies," a designation that applies to about 300,000 miles of rivers and shorelines and 5 million acres of lakes.

The rule -- promulgated in July 2000 and designed to revamp a key Clean Water Act program -- was supported by many environmentalists concerned that the states weren't doing enough. But it has been criticized by farm groups, timber firms and municipalities that fear they could face onerous new restrictions on polluted runoff, and it was rendered moot after Congress voted to bar the EPA from implementing the rule.

The Bush administration is considering an alternative approach to reduce federal oversight and instead "trust states" to clean up more than 20,000 dirty rivers, lakes and estuaries. The new approach would spell out the management process by which states would identify and list polluted bodies of water and develop new quality standards for achieving the "highest attainable" uses of those waterways.

That approach would reflect EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman's emphasis on flexibility and environmental results over command-and-control federal regulations. However, in announcing the withdrawal of the Clinton rule, Whitman said her agency would continue to enforce the law while deciding whether to make significant regulatory changes.

"EPA and states will continue to cooperate to identify impaired waters and set protective standards for those waters," Whitman said.

Environmentalists urged the administration to stick with the law and seek improvements, rather than adopt a more lenient, permissive policy toward the states.

"There are ways the current program could be strengthened, but the administration proposal doesn't strengthen the program; it delays and weakens it," said Nancy Stoner of the Natural Resources Defense Council.