Just Add Water

A two year profile of drinking water quality in the US

May 1, 1996

Just Add Water: California

Weakening the Safe Drinking Water Act




In 1994 and 1995, 4,382,520 people in 570 communities in California drank water that failed to meet federal health standards established under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). In addition, 43 schools, hospitals and daycare centers with privately owned water supplies - responsible for providing water to 68,790 of society's most vulnerable members - also reported violations of basic drinking water safety standards.

Draft legislation circulated April 19, 1996 by Commerce Committee Chairman Thomas Bliley of Virginia would severely weaken scores of provisions in the Act. The legislation, which is the main legislative vehicle for SDWA reform in the House of Representatives, is scheduled for a vote in the House in early May. If enacted, the "Bliley bill" would subvert the basic health standards in current law, curtail the monitoring of drinking water contaminants, limit the public's right to know about drinking water problems, and allow more fecal matter and toxic chemicals in the drinking - also reported water of small and medium sized communities than would be allowed in large cities.

Much of this effort to roll back standards is being driven by the pesticide and chlorine industries - some of the largest polluters of our nation's drinking water. Since January 1993, Political Action Committees representing these industries have contributed over $45,000 to Representative Thomas Bliley (R- VA), the chairman of the House Commerce Committee responsible for rewriting the law.

Bacterial Contamination

Tap water in California continues to be plagued by basic bacterial contamination problems. Data on compliance with federal health standards, which are supplied to EPA by state authorities, indicate that in 1994-1995, 42,277 people in 25 communities drank water from water systems containing disease-causing fecal matter. 2,499,498 people in California drank water from suppliers with chronic coliform bacteria, and 1,733,456 in 79 communities drank from water suppliers that failed to meet EPA standards for adequately filtering and disinfecting tap water. Largely on the basis of widespread contamination of tap water by Cryptosporidium, a microbial parasite, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. EPA issued an unprecedented warning last year that all Americans with compromised immune systems - including cancer and organ transplant patients, and individuals who are HIV positive - should consider boiling their drinking water or drink bottled water.

Chemical Contaminants

Chemical contamination of drinking water also poses major health threats in California. In 1994-1995, 112,237 people in California drank water from suppliers with excess levels of lead, and 236,405 in 18 communities drank water that contained unsafe levels of toxic chemicals or radioactivity.

Communities Affected By Drinking Water Violations The largest water suppliers in the state with violations of EPA drinking water standards were San Francisco Water Department, California Water Service - Bakersfield, and Modesto. Communities with schools, hospitals, or daycare centers that violated EPA standards included Stanford, Fresno, and Vallejo-Fairfield-Napa. Legislative provisions that allow weaker standards for smaller communities are particularly troubling for California, where 86 percent of all violations in 1994-1995 occurred in water systems serving less than 10,000 people.

Monitoring Violations and Enforcement Actions

In addition to the thousands of individuals in California affected by unsafe water, many more drank water from suppliers that failed to perform necessary testing to ensure the safety of tap water. In 1994-1995, 2,502,026 people in California drank water served by 768 water systems that failed to meet basic sanitary testing requirements for tap water.

Over this same time period, the California drinking water agency and the EPA took 119 enforcement actions against water suppliers that were not meeting basic health requirements or failing to adequately test tap water.

As Just Add Water goes to press, Congress is poised to weaken the basic public health protections provided by the Safe Drinking Water Act. Persistent drinking water safety problems indicate that it's time to strengthen, not weaken the law designed to ensure the safety of California's drinking water.