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National Drinking Water Database

National Drinking Water Database - Policy Gaps

Policy Gaps Lead to Health Risks

Federal source water protection programs are failing

December 2009

Scientists and policymakers have long known that the two most effective ways to reduce pollution of drinking water sources are:

  • preventing or reducing the release of pollutants in the first place;
  • maintaining buffer zones of protected land around the water sources to reduce or slow down the inflow of pollutants.

Neither has been done effectively.

Funding for federal initiatives to protect source water reflect a systematic failure on the part of legislators and policymakers to make a priority of the critical measures needed to clean up and protect drinking water. The presence of hundreds of contaminants, increased treatment costs, rising water rates and loss of consumer confidence -- all result from pollution and degradation of water sources. Municipal water users are seeing higher water bills (Bogoslaw 2009; Frost & Sullivan 2007; Global Water Intelligence 2006) even as reports of unregulated pollutants in water, from pharmaceuticals to fuel additives, are on the rise (Associated Press 2008; Barnes 2008; Benotti 2009).

Water utilities across spend more than $50 billion a year on drinking water treatment, according to a 2007 water industry market study (Frost & Sullivan 2007; Reuters 2007). Poor quality source water leads to increases in operating and capital costs, such as the cost of additional water treatment equipment and water treatment chemicals (de la Cretaz 2007; Postel 2005; The Trust for Public Land & American Water Works Association 2004; The Trust for Public Land 2008).

Water treatment chemicals: Over $4 billion spent in the U.S. every year (Frost & Sullivan 2004; Maxwell 2009).

Federal funding for source water protection and pollution prevention: An average of $207 million spent annually during 1997-2008 (EPA 2009l; EPA 2009m; EPA 2009n).

The cost of treatment chemicals, in particular, is closely tied to the quality of source water (Dearmont 1998; Forster 2001; Gross 2003). Precise estimates vary, but several market surveys report that more than $4 billion is spent annually in the United States on water treatment chemicals (Frost & Sullivan 2004; Gross 2003), an amount that has been steadily rising for a decade (Maxwell 2003; Maxwell 2005; Maxwell 2009). Less than one-twentieth of that amount, an average of $207 million, has been dedicated annually to source water protection and pollution prevention under the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF), two key federal programs designed to encourage pollution prevention to ensure safe drinking water (EPA 2009k; EPA 2009l; EPA 2009m; EPA 2009n).

Available funds are not being used

Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, states may use up to 15 percent of capitalization grants from the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) to pay for source water protection activities such as acquiring land or conservation easements and voluntary, incentive-based measures (EPA 2000c). EWG's analysis of DWSRF allocations from the start of the program in 1997 through 2009 found that a very small proportion of the funds were dedicated to source water protection (EPA 2009l; EPA 2009m).

Certain programs, such as technical/financial assistance or wellhead protection, have enjoyed consistent support, but surface water protection has languished. Over the history of the program, 62,582 water systems have received technical or financial assistance; only 21 systems received assistance for source protection. This pattern has been consistent since 1997.

EWG also found that from1997 to 2008, only 1 percent of the Safe Drinking Water Act's set-aside funds available for source water protection [the 1425(k) program] was spent on land acquisition. Only five states used DWSRF funds for land acquisition, protecting a total of just 2,082 acres nationwide:

  • Maine, 1,668 acres acquired by 12 systems
  • Kentucky, 256 acres acquired by 2 systems
  • Vermont, 51 acres acquired by 3 systems
  • Iowa, 40 acres acquired by 1 system
  • Maryland, 1 acre acquired by 1 system

Most of these acquisitions took place from 1999 to 2003; only 85 additional acres were acquired for source water protection from 2004 to 2009.

The total amount spent for surface water protection in 1997-2009, $12.73 million, is a mere 2.3 percent of the net $535 million that could have been used this period under this legislation. For the entire DWSRF budget, the contrast is even starker: of the $16.2 billion provided for all drinking water system project assistance during 1997-2009, source water protection received only 0.08 percent (EPA 2009k). More than 90 percent of DWSRF funds are used for construction projects such as treatment, transmission and distribution, source, and storage facilities. From 2005 to 2009, 93-to-97 percent of DWSRF funds were used for construction. Rather than supporting pollution prevention and source water protection, taxpayer funds are used to fund projects that range from sorely-needed pipe and equipment upgrades to building new infrastructure that subsidizes sprawl (The Trust for Public Land & American Water Works Association 2004; EPA 2009k).

The second federal program involved in source water protection, the Clean Water Act State Revolving Fund (CWSRF), supports water quality protection projects for wastewater treatment, non-point source pollution control and watershed and estuary management (EPA 2009n). Since its foundation in 1988, CWSRF has provided more than $68 billion for various projects (EPA 2009n). The vast majority went to wastewater utilities, however, while non-point source pollution control programs received only 4 percent — an average of $197 million a year invested in pollution prevention (EPA 2009n, statistics for 1997-2008). The imbalance in funding is so markedly shifted away from pollution prevention and source water protection that one can hardly dispute the need for additional support for programs that prevent source water pollution in the first place and directly protect drinking water quality.

Unregulated contaminants are detected, but not disclosed

Federal law requires water utilities to send virtually every American they supply an annual report on contaminants in their drinking water (EPA 2006c). These reports, however, provide only a partial picture. They provide only average levels of most contaminants, not a full reporting of all test results, and they contain no information on unregulated chemicals for which testing is not specifically required by EPA or states.

Compiling national tap water information and providing full access to the public should be a requirement for the EPA. More than a decade ago, the Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1996 included such a requirement, but it still has not done so. EWG urges the Agency to fill this crucial policy gap.

Gaps in federal standard-setting

Every year, water suppliers are required under the Safe Drinking Water Act to submit a report to their customers detailing drinking water testing results. In nearly every case, the utilities are able to tell customers that the water meets or exceeds every standard in federal law, a laudable accomplishment considering the quality of the untreated water in many cases. But because of significant gaps in the standard-setting process, water that "meets federal standards" isn't necessarily perfectly safe to drink.

  • EPA bases its standards not onlybased on health considerations, but on cost; the agency is required to prove that the cost of removing a contaminant does not exceed the benefits. Because of this provision, EPA has set legal limits for 40 percent of regulated contaminants at levels higher than its own recommended health-based limits.
    • EWG's analysis of tap water tests from 45 states shows that 252,730,000 people in communities have been supplied with drinking water contaminated with one or more pollutants at levels above those health-based limits. In 21,901 communities four or more contaminants exceeded health-based limits between 2004 and 2009.
  • EPA is allowed to set maximum legal limits for contaminants as if people are exposed to just one contaminant at a time. That's not the reality — research shows that people carry hundreds of chemicals in their bodies at any given time. A growing number of studies also show that the risks add up when people are exposed to multiple chemicals that act in tandem to harm an organ or system in the body — and the total risk can be greater than the sum of the parts. Some chemicals amplify the risks of others when both are present (National Research Council 2008).
    • EWG's analysis of tap water tests from 45 states shows that 127.7 million people in 6,382 communities have been supplied with drinking water found to be contaminated with at least 10 distinct pollutants on the same day.
  • EPA is not required to set maximum legal limits for contaminants at levels that protect the health of children or to consider specifically the heightened vulnerability of the fetus and newborns to toxic chemicals (Donohue 2002).
    • EWG's analysis shows that in 2,395 communities serving 25.9 million people, concentrations of one or more pollutants exceeded EPA's recommended (not mandatory) limit for one-day exposures to protect a 22-pound child.
  • Review and updating of existing contaminant regulations has been exceedingly slow. In a 2009 report, the Congressional Research Service said that EPA's perceived lack of action on drinking water contaminants "has generated criticism in Congress and elsewhere" (Tiemann 2009). The last update of an enforceable drinking water standard, for arsenic, took place in 2001; the last new regulation, for uranium, was set in 2000 (EPA 2001c). The majority of current drinking water standards were set in 1991 and 1992 and have not been updated. Since 2001, EPA has not set a single new drinking water contaminant standard and has failed to use effectively the mechanisms for developing such standards, such as the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring program and the Contaminant Candidate List program (EPA 2007e; EPA 2009q).

Aging infrastructure affects drinking water quality

Aging infrastructure and sewer overflows are significant contributors to drinking water quality problems around the country (American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) 2009; Kemp-Rye 2008; EPA 2001b; Wheeler 2008). According to 2002 EPA's Clean Water and Drinking Water Infrastructure Gap Analysis, unaddressed infrastructure problems could reverse hard-won water quality gains so that by 2016 water pollution could be similar to levels in the mid-1970s (EPA 2002v).

American towns and cities rely on several million miles of water infrastructure pipelines (EPA 2002v; EPA 2009o). As a nation, we have not invested sufficient funds in renewing and replacing that essential infrastructure. The result is an aging system that poses health and safety risks, is prone to leaks and failures and is increasingly difficult to maintain (EPA 2009o). In a 2009 study, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave American drinking water infrastructure an overall grade of D- (ASCE 2009). According to the study, America's drinking water systems face an annual shortfall of at least $11 billion to replace aging facilities that are near the end of their useful lives and to comply with existing and future federal water regulations.

Water and wastewater infrastructure needs are great (EPA 2009o). In its fourth report to Congress on the Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs, published in 2009, EPA found that "the nation's drinking water utilities need $334.8 billion in infrastructure investments over the next 20 years for thousands of miles of pipe as well as thousands of treatment plants, storage tanks, and other key assets to ensure the public health and economic well-being of our cities, towns, and communities" (EPA 2009p).

The data that EPA collects as part of its infrastructure needs survey are the basis for allocating DWSRF funds to the states and include both construction and regulatory compliance costs (American Water Works Association 2009). Source water protection has a unique potential to lower these costs; it should be strengthened and provided adequate funding under the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and other federal funding mechanisms.


The policy gaps that hamper source water protection and enforcement of drinking water quality need to be remedied with innovative legislation and regulatory leadership by the EPA in order to protect public health, especially the health of the developing fetus and child. All Americans deserve access to clean and wholesome drinking water. It is essential to dedicate more funding for water infrastructure and source water protection programs and to make it a national priority to safeguard public health. So long as unregulated contaminants remain just that -- unregulated and unmonitored -- the safety and reliability of tap water will remain at risk.