By Patrick Crow, Washington Correspondent
The Environmental Protection Agency recently delivered a double dose of expected, but nevertheless welcome, news for the drinking water industry.
In December, EPA updated the Total Coliform Rule for pathogens in drinking water, including a limit for the bacteria E. coli. The revised rule, which affects 155,000 public water systems, is effective April 1, 2016. Until then, the 1989 version applies.
The revised rule followed recommendations outlined in a 2008 agreement developed by a federal advisory committee that evaluated potential changes to the 1989 version.
For large drinking water systems, the revised rule establishes a maximum contaminant level goal (MCLG) and maximum contaminant level (MCL) for E. coli in lieu of an MCLG and MCL for total coliforms and establishes assessment and corrective action requirements for E. coli MCL violations. Public notification requirements will also be based on E. coli violations rather than the presence of total coliforms.
Other significant changes under the revised rule are geared towards smaller water systems, which will see changes to monitoring requirements linked to specific performance criteria. The revised rule provides incentives for small drinking water systems that consistently meet certain measures of water quality and system performance.
More frequent testing will be required from high-risk drinking water systems that have a history of non-compliance.
The American Water Works Association (AWWA), the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA), the National Association of Water Companies and the National Rural Water Association (NRWA) support the updated regulation.
They said EPA made significant improvements to the Total Coliform Rule during the revision comment process, including new requirements that ensure assessment and corrective action when the monitoring results indicate that a potential risk of contamination exists.
Mike Keegan, a NRWA analyst, said the revised rule recognizes that the individuality of water systems makes them subject to unique threats that are best addressed at the local level through self-assessments.
"This is the first time that this principle has been in a federal drinking water regulation. The status quo, which calls for issuing a violation notice, isn't providing all the appropriate measures of mitigation and protection," he said.
The second EPA action came in early January when the agency issued a long anticipated "interpretive memorandum" allowing water utilities the option of delivering their federally mandated, annual Consumer Confidence Reports (CCR) about drinking water quality electronically, rather than through the mail.
The memo said utilities could inform customers where to find the CCR reports online, or email the reports. Water systems using electronic delivery methods would have to provide the standard water quality data, meet the July 1 deadline for CCR distribution and provide paper reports upon request.
AWWA and AMWA had lobbied within EPA and Congress for two years to get the electronic option. In the last legislative session, Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.) and Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) had introduced bills to amend the Safe Drinking Water Act to allow electronic distribution.
AMWA Executive Director Diane VanDe Hei said, "Metropolitan drinking water systems spent an average of $44,000 to print and mail their CCRs in 2012. This translates to nearly $20 million for all drinking water systems that serve more than 100,000 people, so EPA's memo will help communities across the country realize significant savings."
A final, noteworthy change at EPA was the resignation of Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, which had been had been so widely rumored that it had become a foregone conclusion.
Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe will serve as the acting administrator until President Barack Obama names Jackson's replacement and the Senate confirms the nomination. Perciasepe was believed to be a strong candidate for the permanent job. He served as chief of the Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water during the Clinton Administration.
Environmental groups reacted to Jackson resignation with voluble praise. Water associations were silent.
Jackson gave no particular reason for her departure, which prompted some interesting speculation. JD Supra Law News may have been closest to the mark: "When economic growth and job creation come before everything else, being an environmental regulator probably isn't the most fun job in the world - and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson likely found out the hard way."