November Monthly Roundup


Amendments Ushered in Sound Science and Risk-Based Standard Setting

Author: Rob Renner, Council Chair

In the early 1990s, I was privileged to be involved in a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) project to evaluate and provide technical assistance to poorly performing surface water treatment plants. The project involved the evaluation of more than 100 surface water treatment plants in about 20 states. We worked with state agencies to identify and evaluate the plants that presented the greatest public health risks.  The initial work was done prior to the 1996 amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) and provided information on the need for better microbial protection, especially against parasitic cysts like Giardia and Cryptosporidium.

The 1996 SDWA amendments emphasized sound science and risk-based standard setting, addressed microbial contaminants and disinfection byproducts, and strengthened operator certification. The risk-based standard setting required that the U.S. EPA to determine a risk and cost benefit assessment when setting most new standards and regulations. In addition, the amendments instituted Consumer Confidence Reports and other consumer right-to-know initiatives to educate communities about the quality and safety of their water, detected contaminants, possible health effects, and the water sources for their system.  

The amendments also strengthened protections against microbial contaminants, including Cryptosporidium, with enhanced control over disinfection byproducts. This, coupled with aid to smaller systems and operator certification programs, measurably improved the water quality delivered to U.S. consumers.

These changes were significant. Before the 1996 amendments, it was not a pretty picture at many small surface water utilities. One example of plant performance was summed up by the town clerk of a very small Kentucky town. During an interview, she said she knew the plant wasn’t performing well when her dog let the water in his dish settle before drinking it. Thank heavens for chlorine disinfection, which was the only treatment barrier operating in many of the small communities we assisted. But the water still posed a higher risk for anyone with compromised immune systems since parasitic cysts are not particularly susceptible to chlorine disinfection.

I could go on with other similar stories, but thankfully the operational improvements utilities made following the 1996 amendments and resulting regulations have largely addressed microbial contaminants associated with poorly performing surface water treatment plants. Drinking water utility staff professionalism has also improved astronomically and today U.S. utility professionals provide the highest quality drinking water. The U.S. is now one of the few countries where you get better water quality from the tap than from other sources, because it not only has comprehensive regulations, but it also enforces them.

It is an exceedingly difficult task to constantly monitor changing source water and produce high-quality drinking water 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It requires tenacity to produce water you are proud to deliver to your family and community. Safe drinking water is the essential underpinning of a healthy and productive society, and the women and men at water utilities using the tools provided by the SDWA have mastered the task. The dogs like it more too.

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