Safe and clean water is necessary for human and environmental health and the nation’s economic well-being. Over the past 50 years, the nation’s water quality and drinking water have improved, but threats to water quality and safety remain. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the states have identified almost 70,000 water bodies nationwide that do not meet water quality standards.
Additionally, the discovery of toxins in our communities, such as elevated levels of lead in drinking water in Flint, Michigan in 2015, among other cities, and emerging contaminants near military bases and other communities (such as per- and polyfluoralkyl substances) renewed awareness about the risks that lead and other chemical compounds pose to public health.
The EPA and other federal agencies face a number of challenges in ensuring that the nation has access to safe and clean water.
- Under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), EPA establishes legally enforceable standards that limit the levels of specific contaminants in drinking water. EPA identifies unregulated contaminants, monitors them, and determines whether to regulate them based on things like how dangerous they are to public health, and how often they occur. Public water systems must comply with monitoring, reporting, and other requirements established by EPA and responsible states. But the data that states reported to EPA did not always reflect the frequency of health-based and monitoring violations by community water systems or the status of enforcement actions.
- The Lead and Copper Rule requires water systems to test for lead and treat water to help prevent corroded pipes from leaching lead. The 68,000 water systems serving the majority of U.S. residents are subject to this rule, and must test in high-risk areas near lead pipes. However, EPA could improve how it ensures that data on lead pipes in waters systems are current, accurate, and complete. Additionally, many young children spend significant amounts of time in child care settings, including Head Start centers. Lead in drinking water in such settings is also a concern. EPA and the Department of Health and Human Services should promote lead testing and improve guidance for child care settings.
- Under the SDWA, EPA is charged with protecting underground sources of drinking water from contamination. It does so through the Underground Injection Control (UIC) program, which regulates the injection of wastewater into underground wells. However, EPA has not collected specific inspection or enforcement information to assess whether state and EPA-managed UIC programs for oil and gas wastewater disposal wells are protecting underground sources of drinking water.
- States also play a key role in managing water pollution from nonpoint sources—such as runoff from farms, parking lots, or streets—which is the leading cause of pollution of the nation’s waters. States set water quality standards, monitor water quality, and identify water bodies that do not meet their standards. For waters that do not meet water quality standards, states must develop Total Maximum Daily Loads—a pollutant budget—which EPA approves. EPA and the states then work to restrict pollution to these levels, such as by providing incentives to landowners to reduce nonpoint source pollution. However, this program relies on voluntary measures, leaving many of the nation’s waters impaired and the goals of the CWA unmet.
- Extreme weather related to climate change potentially threatens utilities that produce drinking water and treat wastewater. EPA provides significant financial resources to assist utilities in repairing and replacing their infrastructure. It also provides technical assistance to utilities to improve their resilience to extreme weather. However, EPA’s program is small and can’t help nationwide. But the EPA could organize a network of technical advisors to assist nationally.
- EPA has undertaken large-scale watershed restoration efforts, which involve protecting aquatic ecosystems and wetlands in important geographic areas. However, to improve the likelihood that the Chesapeake Bay restoration goals are attained, EPA should collaborate with federal and state bay restoration stakeholders to establish milestones for gauging progress.
- Combined sewer systems collect sewage and storm runoff in the same pipes for treatment. This means heavy rainfall can overwhelm system capacity, causing raw sewage to overflow into waterways. About 700 U.S. municipalities have such systems. Since 1994, the Environmental Protection Agency has told these municipalities to develop plans to address overflows and comply with the Clean Water Act. However, EPA does not set goals or track progress.
- Overgrown algae can make toxins and lead to hypoxia (depleted oxygen) in water bodies, harming people and animals. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and EPA lead a federal interagency working group to manage harmful algal blooms and hypoxia. However, agencies in this working group could do more to meet the goals they set in 2016—such as expanding agency monitoring and forecasting of harmful algal bloom and hypoxia events in inland freshwater bodies.
A harmful algal bloom in Milford Lake, Kansas, made the water appear bright green
- The International Boundary and Water Commission in the State Department manages two wastewater plants on the U.S-Mexico border at Nogales, Arizona and San Ysidro, California. These plants are subject to the CWA, which prohibits the discharge of pollutants from point sources into waters of the United States without a permit from EPA or an authorized state. But population growth and aging plant infrastructure allow stormwater to bring bacteria, trash, and sediment from Mexico into the United States—affecting public health and the environment in Arizona and California. Congress could consider directing the Commission to identify alternatives—including cost estimates and funding sources—to help resolve these continuing water quality problems.