Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 and Beyond

Little Girl Drinking a Glass of WaterThe Safe Drinking Water Act was one of several environmental laws enacted during the 1970s to address American’s concerns about air, water, and land pollution.

A previous post entitled Clean Water Laws – Prior to Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 dealt with clean water legislation in general. This post looks specifically at the Safe Drinking Water Act, its amendments, and impact other laws have on the SDWA.

Events Leading Up to Safe Drinking Water Act

During the 1960s and early 1970s, the media reported waterborne disease outbreaks and pollution incidents, and the government attempted to determine what the specific problems were and what should be done to solve them.

Two studies are often cited in conjunction with the SDWA: Industrial Pollution of the Lower Mississippi River in Louisiana conducted by the EPA at the request of the State of Louisiana, and the Community Water Supply Study conducted by the Public Health Service (highlights below).

Community Water Supply Study

The Community Water Supply Study evaluated the quality of drinking water being supplied to 18 million people from 969 public water systems spread across the country serving both large and small populations. Significant findings were:

  • 41% of the 969 systems were delivering inferior or potentially dangerous water to 2.5 million people.
  • 56% of the water systems were considered deficient, including poorly protected groundwater sources, some were said to be archaic.
  • 77% of plant operators were inadequately trained in fundamental water microbiology.
  • Little was known about environmental and health impacts of the 12,000 toxic chemical compounds in industrial use.
  • Insufficient knowledge and technology existed to adequately treat wastewater for reuse as drinking water.

As result of these findings and others, a national safe drinking water law was drafted and passed by Congress.

Safe Drinking Water Act (Public Law 93-523)

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was signed into law on December 16, 1974 by President Gerald Ford. Some of the main features of the SDWA include:

  • EPA has authority to establish and enforce national drinking water regulations to protect drinking water from naturally occurring and man-made contaminants.
  • National Primary Drinking Water Regulations are enforceable standards that set maximum levels for particular contaminants applicable to all public water systems.
  • National Secondary Drinking Water Regulations are non-enforceable guidelines for contaminants that may cause cosmetic or aesthetic effects (tooth discoloration or taste).
  • Wastewater Treatment PlantRegulations apply to public water systems providing drinking water to at least 25 people or 15 service connections for at least 60 days per year.
  • States have primary responsibility for implementation and enforcement of SDWA, with EPA oversight and assistance.
  • EPA has authority to control underground injection to protect underground drinking water sources.

The SDWA was amended in 1986 to streamline the standard setting process, strengthen the EPA’s enforcement authority, and introduce a requirement for states to establish programs to protect the areas around wells and wellheads supplying water to public water systems.

Substantial amendments were made to the SDWA in 1996 to focus on preventing contamination, improving regulatory processes, providing the public with information about their drinking water, and creating a Drinking Water State Revolving Fund to assist communities with financing drinking water facility projects,

How Other Legislation Impacts the Safe Drinking Water Act

U.S. laws often involve multiple departments and agencies and one law may change or supersede another. Below are a few examples of how other laws impact the SDWA.

  • Rusty Fuel Drums in Arctic WatersResource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 – hazardous waste came under regulation by the EPA. This impacted the SDWA due to the potential for substances to leach from disposal sites and contaminate groundwater.
  • Bioterrorism Act of 2002 – required the EPA and water utilities to assess threats to the security of public drinking supplies and develop and implement plans to protect them from attack.
  • Energy Policy Act of 2005 – amended the SDWA to exclude hydraulic fracturing fluids (except diesel fuel) related to energy production. States may regulate if they choose.

Safe Drinking Water Snapshot – 2011

Two 2011 reports provide a small snapshot of current drinking water safety and future infrastructure needs.

2011 Drinking and Ground Waster Statistics Report

In 2011, 93% of the population served by community water systems received drinking water that met all applicable health-based standards, up from 78.8% in 1993.

2011 Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment

73,400 water utilities will require $384.2 billion over of the next 20 years to upgrade, replace, or install thousands of miles of pipes, water intake structures, treatment plants, storage tanks, security measures, and data acquisition systems.

In the next post in this series, learn what you can do to protect drinking water.


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Author: Linda Poppenheimer

Linda researches and writes about environmental topics to share information and to spark conversation. Her mission is to live more lightly on Earth and to persuade everyone else to do the same.

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