Grab a glass, turn on the faucet, and take a drink. It’s a simple thing we do every day without much thought. But it wasn’t that long ago that at least parts of the country had reason to pause before reaching for tap water. As recently as the 1970s, in fact, concerns over drinking water quality were high and news was abuzz with reports of contaminants that posed risks to public health.
The tides began to turn on Dec. 16, 1974 when President Gerald Ford signed the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) into law. One in a string of environmental legislation, the act set the stage for the first national health-based standards for drinking water.
The standards—set by U.S. EPA and enforced primarily by the states—set maximum levels for roughly 90 contaminants ranging from pesticides to human waste to naturally-occurring chemicals that can endanger public health. The more than 150,000 public water systems regulated under SDWA are required to test for contaminants and make changes when standards aren’t met.
Over the years, Congress has expanded SDWA several times. The original act focused primarily on treatment processes and technologies. Today, states are also required to assess the quality of rivers, lakes, and groundwater used for drinking water and determine their vulnerability to contamination. Grant and loan programs were also established in 1996 to help providers, particularly small water systems, protect source water, improve treatment processes, and train system operators and managers.
The 1996 amendments also make it easier for you to learn where your water comes from, how it is treated, and what you can do to protect drinking water supplies. Community water systems are required to provide this information in annual consumer confidence reports. You can also get answers to specific questions by calling the EPA Safe Drinking Water Hotline.
Despite these improvements, ensuring Americans have access to safe drinking water is not without its challenges. Check back here later this week for more information on some of the major obstacles faced by water providers and communities.