Just Add Water

A two year profile of drinking water quality in the US

May 1, 1996

Just Add Water: Water to Watch

Just Add Water provides a snapshot profile of drinking water quality in the United States. If the same analysis were done again in two years, some of the cities and towns with recurring problems would appear again, and others would drop off the list to be replaced by new communities where a problem emerged. A similar list was prepared in May, 1995, based upon EPA violations reported for the 1993-1994 period (See In The Drink, Environmental Working Group, May 1995).

While problems in specific communities may or may not arise within a two year period, one thing is abundantly clear: people drink water in thousands of communities large and small, that is polluted with biological, chemical, and radioactive contaminants at levels the federal government deems unsafe. All violations of a federal health standard are serious because they mean either that people may have been made ill by drinking the water that was contaminated with hazardous microorganisms, or that people are consuming excessively high levels of carcinogenic or otherwise toxic contaminants or lead over extended periods of time.

Within the SDWIS universe of reported health standard violations, some water systems bear closer scrutiny. As a first step in understanding the extent of these drinking water systems, we developed a list of drinking water systems serving over 10,000 people that deserve a closer look (Tables 13 and 14).

In developing this list of Water to Watch we used the following criteria. First, we looked at large systems (serving over 10,000 people) that were placed on EPA's Significant Non-Complier (SNC) List for violations of health standards in 1994 or 19951 . The SNC list, which was obtained from the EPA along with the SDWIS database, contains systems that have been shown to have the most significant contamination or compliance problems, principally repeated violations of biological water quality standards, or major violations of health standards for chemical and radiological contaminants.

While this provides a starting point to analyze water systems that have failed to meet the laws' requirements, it does not include important information such as violations of the Surface Water Treatment Rule (which requires water systems to adequately filter or disinfect drinking water) or systems that exceed the Lead Action Level (meaning that water drinkers in those communities were exposed to unhealthy levels of lead in their water). The SNC list also does not account for many water systems that have reported multiple problems to SDWIS.

Second, to be listed as Water to Watch, systems not characterized by EPA as "significant non-compliers" must have reported a recurring or ongoing pattern of violations of at least two health contaminant standards. This limited our list to:

  • Systems violating the Surface Water Treatment Rule once, coupled with at least one coliform and/or turbidity violation in the two year period.
  • Systems that reported at least two violations or exceedances of contaminant standards or one chemical violation coupled with a violation of a biological contaminant. For example, a system exceeding the Lead Action Level that also had violations of Coliform standards would be placed on the list.
  • Systems violating standards for inadequate filtration or disinfection and also reporting coliform or turbidity violations.

The 74 water systems on this 1996 Water to Watch list fall into three categories.


  1. Water systems with newly identified, serious problems. Thirty-four (34) water suppliers including Jersey City and Modesto, CA not previously on the Water to Watch list, have been added to the list because of multiple violations that occurred during 1995 (Table 13).
  2. Water systems were listed on the Water to Watch list based on 1993-1994 violations information, and had either new problems or recurring problems in 1995. Seventeen (17) water suppliers including Fort Bragg, NC and Camden, NJ are listed as repeat, serious violators (Table 13).
  3. Water suppliers listed on the Water to Watch list because of violations that occured in 1994, but with no violations in 1995. Many of these twenty-three (23) water suppliers including New York City and Kearney, NE have begun cleaning up their drinking water. These potential SWDA sucess stories indicate the need for strong federal drinking water health and monitoring requirements. Weakening these standards now, will place in jeopardy the health of the citizens of these and other communities with contaminated drinking water (Table 14).

Note 1 In some cases, water systems were placed on the 1994-95 SNC list for violations that occurred in earlier years. These systems were excluded from our list of systems with Drinking Water to Watch.