Ensuring that all Americans have access to safe drinking water is an absolute top priority for [the] EPA…We must work collectively to seize opportunities for progress, partnership, and innovation in order to continue to provide our citizens with the safest drinking water in the world.

– EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy

EPA logoThe United States’ drinking water supply is comprised of over 170,000 public water systems. In terms of consumption, Americans collectively drink more than 1 billion glasses of water daily. Given these statistics, it is necessary to have an infrastructure in place to ensure a steady supply of drinking water.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the nation’s foremost authority when it comes to safeguarding the vast U.S. water supply system. The agency undertakes these responsibilities through various means, including proposals, rules, and influencing legislative processes. To understand the current situation, one must look back at the introduction of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The Safe Drinking Water Act

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) of 1974 is considered the country’s primary water safety legislation. The law, which was designed “to protect public health by regulating the nation’s public drinking water supply,” requires the EPA to set standards for drinking water quality.

Since its passage, the SDWA has been significantly amended twice: in 1986 and 1996. Requirements under the law, which are numerous, are intended to protect all sources of drinking water, including ground wells, lakes, rivers, and springs. Private wells—a source that serves fewer than 25 people—are the only sources not subject to SDWA authority.

According to the EPA, there are over 170,000 public water systems that serve every American citizen “at some point.” The responsibility for maintaining this complex apparatus is “divided among US EPA, states, tribes, water systems, and the public,” with the SDWA serving as a framework to contextualize these shared responsibilities.

The original legislation focuses primarily on water treatment, citing the numerous potential contaminants of water. The threats include “improperly disposed of chemicals; animal wastes; pesticides; human threats; wastes injected underground; and naturally occurring substances.” Also cited within the legislation are other means of water contamination, including poorly maintained distribution systems.

Additional Requirements and 1986 Amendments

drinking waterSubsequent amendments to the SDWA provided the EPA with additional legislative authority to set national standards for drinking water. These standards, titled National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (MPDWRs), include the identification of contaminants that may pose a hazard to public health.

The 1986 amendments require the EPA to set “maximum contaminant levels” for safe drinking water. The recommendations were to be based on research and recommendations from designated experts within the scientific community. In the event that water samples acquired did not meet these requirements, criteria and procedures (e.g. treatment) “to assure a supply of drinking water which dependably complies with such maximum contaminant levels” were to commence immediately.

Key Amendments

1996 amendments to the SDWA supplemented the legislation in accordance with various Congressional findings. Per EPA documentation, the amendments fulfill six key objectives:

  1. Consumer Confidence Reports: All “community water systems” are required to disseminate yearly reports pertaining to the quality of water which they provide.
  1. Cost-Benefit Analysis: The EPA must present a cost-benefit analysis for every newly proposed standard in order to substantiate whether the benefits justify the use of taxpayer money.
  1. State Revolving Funds: States obtain access to a general fund that is accessible for the purpose of making improvements to the infrastructure of and/or management of water systems. Evidence must be presented that justifies the appropriation of such funds.
  1. Operator Certification: Operators of “community and nontransient, noncommunity water systems” must be certified per EPA-issued minimum standards. All 50 states are now implementing the Operator Certification Program for said personnel.
  1. Public Information Accessibility: SDWA emphasizes the point “that consumers have a right to know what is in their drinking water.” As such, the law requires the EPA to establish networks of publicly accessible information (e.g. phone hotlines, websites, and resource centers)
  1. Water Safety Assessment: Each state is required to assess every available source of drinking water to fulfill the law’s requirement of identifying, testing, and accounting for any potential and real sources of contamination.

Jurisdictional Implications

All drinking water standards established by the EPA—as permitted via SDWA law—are legally enforceable. As such, both the EPA and state public health authorities may take legal action in the event of non-compliance. Per EPA legislation, this includes “(issuing) administrative orders, (taking) legal actions, or (fining) utility providers.

In most cases, local jurisdictional authorities, such as courts, are responsible for issuing any penalties, monetary or otherwise.

Other EPA Actions

Most notably, the EPA intermittently publishes and disseminates information regarding the safety and reliability of drinking water. Adhering to originating tenets since the EPA’s inception, many “announcements” tend to stem from recent events and science-based evidence.

Recently, the EPA announced, among other things, the electronic reporting of SDWA compliance data, advancement of the public dissemination of EPA-reviewed state water supply programs, and the continued development of “indicators to identify troubled systems.”