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Fixing Our Nation’s Drinking Water Policy

To improve the safety of American drinking water, changes are needed in both federal and state policies.

Federal laws governing the quality of both drinking water and surface waters, which supply many utilities, must be strengthened to limit tap water contamination and to modernize our aging water infrastructure. In the absence of federal leadership, states should take steps to set and enforce drinking water standards that are more rigorous and health protective than those required by the Environmental Protection Agency. Common-sense changes must also be made to the federal farm bill to reduce agricultural pollution of drinking water. It is essential that the federal and state agencies tasked with protecting our drinking water have sufficient resources and authority to create and enforce safeguards.

Increase drinking water protections

Strengthen drinking water regulations to protect children’s health

The Safe Drinking Water Act, enacted in 1974, is the primary federal law that regulates drinking water. It was established to protect drinking water, in part, by setting legal limits – Maximum Contaminant Levels, or MCLs – for certain chemicals known or suspected to cause harm to human health.

These standards – covering about 100 contaminants – are supposed to be reviewed and strengthened every six years but most have not been. In fact, despite extensive information showing health harms of currently unregulated contaminants, in the more than 20 years since the passage of 1996 Safe Drinking Water Act amendments, the EPA has failed to regulate a single additional contaminant. The law also requires that every five years the EPA issue a list of no more than 30 unregulated contaminants to be monitored by public water systems, identified based on the greatest potential for causing harm.

Especially troubling is the fact that the EPA has not effectively implemented the intent of the Safe Drinking Water Act, which states that drinking water regulations should consider the effects of contaminants “on groups within the general population such as infants, children, pregnant women, the elderly, individuals with a history of serious illness, or other subpopulations that are identified as likely to be at greater risk of adverse health effects due to exposure to contaminants in drinking water than the general population.”1

Protecting children’s health is a key part of the EPA’s mission. A growing body of research indicates that pregnant women, infants and children are particularly susceptible to the effects of environmental toxicants. Early-life exposures can have lifelong impacts on health and should be prevented to the extent possible. Studies of tap water contaminants such as lead, nitrate and disinfection byproducts show that tap water in many communities carries contaminants in amounts that may cause health harm, even when the tap water is in compliance with legally mandated drinking water regulations.

EWG’s research shows that current MCLs are outdated and must be strengthened. It also shows that the EPA-mandated tests of tap water around the country have found a number of unregulated contaminants in concentrations much higher than what the best science says is safe for both adults and children.

The EPA should update existing MCLs and create new regulations for unregulated water contaminants. The agency’s monitoring rules should also be strengthened to require more frequent and targeted testing to quickly and accurately identify problems.

Most importantly, the EPA must give special consideration to the exposure and toxicity of drinking water contaminants for young children. Drinking water standards should be set so that children are safe when they drink a glass of water. Yet existing national drinking water standards were developed for an adult weighting 70 kilograms, or 154 pounds, not for a child or infant. The EPA should establish child-specific criteria for drinking water pollutants that will take into account children’s unique sensitivity to toxic chemicals.

In the absence of federal regulation, states should enact more stringent standards

States play an important role in regulating contaminants in drinking water. States can enact their own standards and goals for drinking water that are more stringent than federal standards. In the absence of health-protective federal standards, state regulations must be strengthened. For the many unregulated chemicals of concern in drinking water, EWG encourages state regulators to review the latest science on drinking water contaminants, and update or enact their own standards.

Invest in infrastructure and enforcement

Antiquated and deteriorating pipes, and outdated treatment facilities can also compromise drinking water safety. Congress should significantly increase federal funding to replace worn water lines, many of which are leaking, at risk of breaking, or contain toxic metals like lead. Congress also needs to allocate funds to modernize water treatment facilities, many of which rely on older technologies which were not designed to remove many of the toxic chemicals and pathogens found in water today.

Congress should also boost federal funding allocated to states to pay for and manage these infrastructure improvements. It should increase funding for investigations, monitoring, enforcement, and record-auditing at both the state and federal levels to increase compliance and prosecute bad actors. Congress should also protect and expand funding opportunities for rural communities to upgrade their drinking water infrastructure and water treatment facilities.

Increase source water protections

The most effective way to ensure clean tap water is to protect water from pollution before it gets to the water treatment plant.

The Clean Water Act protects surface water bodies such as rivers and lakes. Under the law, industrial polluters and municipalities must obtain permits before they can discharge waste containing certain pollutants into water. Those permits dictate exactly how much of a pollutant can be released into water. The EPA can also set a limit on the total amount of a substance that can be found in a particular body of water.

However, these permits are often too lax and are not always adequately enforced. The EPA and states should work to strengthen permitting requirements to reduce the amount of pollutants getting into water before it gets treated and piped into homes. Limiting the Clean Water Act jurisdiction over federal waters, as the Trump administration has proposed, would put the drinking water of more than 100 million Americans at risk.

But wastewater discharges are not the only way water bodies become polluted. Pollutants can also get into water bodies from runoff, rain, snow, drainage, seepage and deposition from air pollution. As water moves over land it can pick up fertilizers, pesticides, animal manure, oil, grease, heavy metals, bacteria and whatever else might be in the soil – eventually getting into rivers, lakes and coastal waters.

States are primarily responsible for controlling localized surface pollution. States should continually study pollutants found in runoff and set, revise, and enforce their standards. Furthermore, Congress should appropriate more funding for grants to states to implement and enforce these standards.

Farm pollution is largely exempt from the Clean Water Act. While this can – and should –change, in the short-term Congress should alter the federal farm bill to increase and reform voluntary conservation programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In particular, Congress should reform USDA conservation programs to better target conservation spending toward practices that protect and enhance the quality of surface water and groundwater that supplies drinking water to community water systems and domestic wells.

Greater priority should be given to conservation practices that protect drinking water sources by improving the management of crops and livestock production systems, and reducing fertilizer, pesticide and manure pollution. The USDA should also enter into long-term contracts for land and water conservation practices, and long-term, permanent easements for land restoration, in lieu of short-term contracts that don’t provide lasting benefits for source water protection.

In addition, Congress should expand conservation requirements for farm subsidy recipients to require source water protection as a condition of receiving subsidies, including federally subsidized crop insurance. In general, Congress should no longer provide subsidies to farmers who pollute drinking water sources.

Don’t undermine regulators

Don’t pass misguided ‘regulatory reform’ bills

Currently, both the House and Senate are considering several misguided bills that would effectively block federal efforts to set new drinking water standards. Among the most concerning is the so-called Regulatory Accountability Act, or RAA, being considered in both chambers.

One reason water protection measures are so inadequate is that regulators at the EPA and USDA already have to jump through significant hoops in order to put new rules in place. It can take years, even decades, to establish a single drinking water standard. The RAA and other proposed reforms would make the process more difficult by requiring the agencies to do endless studies of alternatives, dragging out the process even further. The bill would also give industry more power to stymie or undermine rulemaking by subjecting proposed rules to time-consuming administrative hearings. The RAA would also require the EPA to choose the most “cost-effective” regulation, meaning the regulation most favorable to polluters.

Don’t cut funding to the EPA and USDA

In order to strengthen drinking water protections, the EPA and USDA must have adequate resources. Current budget proposals would significantly cut funding to both agencies.

If enacted, those cuts would be devastating to these agencies. It would be even more difficult for the EPA to update existing drinking water standards or issue new ones. The USDA would have less capacity to support farmers when they take steps to reduce farm pollution into drinking water supplies or help rural communities meet their drinking water challenges. Congress should instead maintain or increase funding for both agencies, especially for programs that protect drinking water quality.