The history of federal drinking water standards
Prior to the passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) in 1974, there were a smattering of state and local municipal water regulations to ensure adequate quantities of drinking water in the United States. Quality and safety were not yet priorities.
The SDWA had only been in place for 15 years when Secondwind Water Systems formed in 1989. This post examines the history of the SDWA, how it and drinking water standards have evolved through the years, and how we both meet and surpass Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations.
Establishing federal water safety standards
In 1974, President Gerald Ford signed the Safe Drinking Water Act into law to protect the quality of drinking water in the U.S. The act was the nationwide response to the detection of contaminants found in water systems and the lack of enforceable standards.
Under the act, the EPA contracted with the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) for a major study of naturally-occurring and man-made drinking water contaminants. Based on the study’s findings, it was authorized to set maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for 23 contaminants or groups of contaminants.
These standards applied to all public water systems serving 25 or more people for 60 or more days a year. Based on ongoing research, the government continues to add contaminants to this list.
Even though the SDWA does not apply to privately-owned wells (homeowners are responsible for the safety of their own water) or bottled water (which is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration), Secondwind Water uses these guidelines to help homeowners learn about what is in their water and what is considered safe for drinking, bathing and cleaning the household.
Significant SDWA amendments
1986: The SDWA was strengthened from an environmental standpoint, giving the EPA more enforcement powers. The act was amended to include 60 more water contaminants. It also required wellhead protection, filtration for certain surface water systems and disinfection for some groundwater systems. The amendments also included restrictions on the use of lead in solder and plumbing.
1996: These amendments were designed to protect drinking water from source to tap. The existing law was enhanced to require source water protection, public water system operator training and state funding for water system improvements.
Protections for microbial contaminants (such as cryptosporidium a.k.a. crypto) as well as the byproducts of chemical disinfection were also strengthened. In addition, the EPA emphasized that consumers have a right to know what’s in their drinking water, where it comes from, how it’s treated and how to help protect it.
This amendment also required public water systems to complete annual Consumer Confidence Reports on where their water comes from and what needs to be done to ensure it is accessible and safe.
2011: Through the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act, Congress tightened the definition of “lead-free” plumbing fixtures and fittings by lowering the maximum lead content of plumbing products from 8% to a weighted average of .25%.
2015: The EPA submitted its Algal Toxin Risk Assessment and Management Strategic Plan for Drinking Water to Congress. The strategic plan was written to assess and manage risks associated with cyanotoxins in drinking water provided by public water systems. The EPA continues to work with federal agencies, states, territories, tribes and drinking water utilities to implement the strategic plan.
President Barack Obama signed the Grassroots Rural and Small Community Water Systems Assistance Act. This amendment ensures that small public water systems receive the technical assistance needed for compliance with National Primary Drinking Water Regulations.
2016: The Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act added several provisions, including:
- Expanding the water infrastructure public-private partnership loan program
- Requiring public notification when household drinking water lead levels are above the EPA action level (0.015 milligrams per liter)
- Establishing a voluntary program for testing drinking water at schools and childcare centers for lead
- Creating a public information clearinghouse on alternative drinking water delivery systems
In response to the Flint, Michigan, lead contamination crisis, the amendment provided the city and other communities with funding for drinking water infrastructure upgrades.
2018: President Trump signed America’s Water Infrastructure Act, a bipartisan bill set to allocate more than $6 billion in funding for water infrastructure projects nationwide. The act helps communities throughout the nation comply with the SDWA by funding upgrades for aging drinking water, wastewater and irrigation systems.
The future of the SDWA
Although the SDWA has been helpful in reducing water contaminant levels and protecting the public’s health, it faces many obstacles to effective implementation across all areas of the country.
According to the AMA Journal of Ethics, up to half of the U.S. population drinks unregulated water from small systems that have fallen through the cracks of the regulatory protections imposed by the SDWA and other laws. Despite increases in funding, many experts believe significantly more money is needed to make critical infrastructure improvements.
Some critics suggest that many of the existing SDWA’s contaminant levels are far too conservative. Others say further studies – and protections – are needed on the health effects of the thousands of unregulated chemicals used in the country. While mounting public pressure may fuel regulatory change, political disagreement will likely cause significant delays in any proposed legislation.
We help NH homeowners understand federal water safety standards
At Secondwind, water quality and safety has been at the forefront of our business since we opened our doors. As New Hampshire’s leading water treatment company, Secondwind’s experts are well-versed in federal, state and local water regulations.
An important part of our job is keeping abreast of changing regulations and safety recommendations since these affect a homeowner’s decisions around water treatment.
Because federal drinking water standards do not apply to private wells, homeowners aren’t required to test their drinking water. Most health-concerning contaminants found in New Hampshire – including arsenic and lead – have no taste, color or odor.
There are towns that require testing but not treatment. While some banks writing home mortgages impose minimum water quality standards, these vary from company to company.
For this reason, educating homeowners about water quality safety is important to us. Often, we hear from homeowners who have an obvious water quality issue, including staining or concerns around taste or smell.
Once our technicians visit the home, they might recommend additional testing based on what they’re seeing or smelling. The best way to know what’s in your water is to test it. Our goal is to make sure our customers have the information they need to determine what will make them feel safe.
Your questions about water quality and safety in NH
Secondwind stays on top of the latest research and all federal and state recommendations around water quality and safety. We’re here to answer any questions you may have about these recommendations. If you have concerns about the safety or quality of your water, contact us. We’ll provide the information you need to make informed decisions about treating it.