EWG's Tap Water Database — 2021 UPDATE

People taking notes

7 questions to ask your elected officials about tap water

November 2021

After you've checked EWG's Tap Water Database to see how the water in your community stacks up and considered your water filter options, what’s the next step?

Most utilities provide water that gets a passing grade from the government, but that doesn’t mean there’s no need to worry about contamination, or that we don’t need to advance water equity. One of the best ways to push for cleaner water is to hold accountable the elected officials who have a say in water quality – from city hall and the state legislature to Congress all the way to the Oval Office – by asking questions and demanding answers.

Here are seven questions that will get you started.

1. What’s in my tap water?

Does your mayor, city councilmember or state representative know what are the biggest concerns for your local tap water? Do they realize that even if the tap water meets federal standards, that doesn’t mean it’s free of potentially harmful contaminants? Your tap water could contain neurotoxic or cancer-causing chemicals, many of which are not covered under federal drinking water regulations.

Millions of Americans drink tap water with contaminants at levels that, though legal, could pose a risk to health.

Ask your local officials and your water utility to test more extensively than either state or federal regulations require. Broader testing provides a better picture of what’s in your water.

2. Why are these contaminants in my water?

With contaminants, the first issue is whether they come from a local source, such as an abandoned waste site; underground storage tanks and septic tanks; or from the entire watershed, which would include fertilizers and pesticides.

Tap water contaminants could be in the river or groundwater that supplies your system and not get removed by treatment processes before being piped to your home. Some contaminants are produced by the treatment process itself.

Understanding the source of the problem is the first step toward addressing it.

3. How does our water system remove contaminants?

Make sure elected officials do their homework about drinking water quality, so they know what water treatment methods already exist at your local utility, as well as what additional treatments may need to be installed to ensure good quality water.

To treat water, most water systems use a basic process that removes larger particles through sedimentation and filtration, followed by disinfection to kill disease-causing pathogens.

But this conventional water treatment approach cannot remove many types of contaminants, such as PFAS, the fertilizer chemical nitrate, volatile solvents such as the dry-cleaning chemical perc, and radioactive substances. To treat PFAS or pesticides, many water systems install additional treatment, for example, granular activated carbon.

Advanced treatment can remove many contaminants and, increasingly, water utilities and the communities they serve are investing in such equipment to provide better water. These technologies require long-term planning and financing, so involving local officials early and often is essential.

4. How are you investing in better water treatment technology to improve water quality?

Tell your elected officials at all levels of government they must invest in protecting drinking water quality.

At the local level, a change in the process used at a water treatment plant can make a big difference, and scientists are working on new and improved technologies to treat tap water. But such changes and technologies can be expensive to adopt, particularly for small water utilities, so state and federal support for water infrastructure is essential.

At the national level, water quality could be improved with better protection of source water, expanded test requirements and the establishment of health-protective standards for unregulated chemicals.

5. What are you doing to create sustainable funding for our water systems?

Make sure your elected officials budget for the water treatment needed now and in the future.

U.S. water systems urgently need investment. In its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s water infrastructure a "D." According to research by the Environmental Protection Agency Water Infrastructure and Resiliency Finance Center, the U.S. needs to invest more than $600 billion in water infrastructure improvements over the next 20 years.

Without a sustainable source of funding, our water infrastructure will continue to age, and our water quality will suffer.

6. How are you protecting our source water to keep pollution from getting into water in the first place?

So far, both Congress and state legislatures have failed to require important source water protection measures, like buffer zones around rivers and reservoirs. This forces water utilities to invest heavily in treatment, which is expensive and can lead to disinfection byproducts that are themselves harmful to health.

Tell your officials that source water protection is a must for ensuring the quality and supply of our water in the long term.

7. How are you making sure that good, clean water remains affordable for all residents?

Every American deserves access to safe, clean, affordable drinking water from the tap. Meeting this challenge won’t be easy – local water utilities are dealing with increased source contamination, and state and federal agencies are facing budget constraints. That’s why advocacy has never been more important.

Letting officials at all levels know that you care about safe, affordable tap water will help keep the issue on the agenda and ensure that all Americans have water they can count on.