Celebrating 50 Years of the Safe Drinking Water Act

May 8, 2024
Ellie Gabel discusses the history of the SDWA and the impact its had over the years.

It has been 50 years since the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was signed into law. Since its passage, the act has set the standards for protecting drinking water quality in the United States. In honor of such a landmark achievement, here is a deep dive into the SDWA key milestones and impacts on the water industry.

SDWA timeline and amendments 

Until 1974, state and local governments were mainly responsible for regulating public water supply to their communities. Rising concerns over the potential risks from industrial runoff and synthetic chemicals in water sources prompted the need for the federal government to be more involved in the process.

Key milestones  

President Gerald R. Ford signed the SDWA into law on December 16, 1974, following months of congressional deliberations. The act was proposed as a decisive federal regulation to govern the standards for contaminant levels in the water supply.

In his official signing statement, President Ford described the bill as a development that would “provide us with the protection we need for drinking water.” The SDWA empowered the EPA to establish and oversee the implementation of the national standards for drinking water quality.

Congress first amended the SDWA in 1986, requiring the EPA to regulate more contaminants and protect underground water sources within the next three years. President Ronald Reagan made it official on June 19th that year. The following amendment came 10 years later, with the aim of including public information reporting, operator training and enhanced water source protection into the scope of the law.

Between 2005 and 2016, the SDWA underwent four key amendments revolving around safeguarding drinking water infrastructure, reducing lead exposure and increasing funding for disadvantaged communities. The most recent amendment was in 2018, which enacted America’s Water Infrastructure Act. It expanded financial assistance to underserved areas, and required community water systems to prepare response plans in the event of hazards and malicious acts.

The EPA remains the administrator of the SDWA and related programs, regulating more than 150,000 public water systems that serve over 300 million Americans.

Public drinking water impact  

Many people consume tap water without giving much thought to its safety. That is a testament to the effectiveness of the SDWA, further demonstrating its necessity in regulating public drinking water.

The benefits of consuming clean water are already well documented, as are the repercussions of drinking contaminated water. Studies show 80% of diseases worldwide are related to poor water quality and unsanitary practices.

What factors affect water safety? 

A growing population and an escalating shift towards resource-intensive patterns have seen a sixfold increase in freshwater demand over the last 100 years. Higher consumption levels expose the existing supply to several challenges.

Climate change is currently one of the most significant issues impacting the industry, as flooding, drought, unpredictable weather and rising sea levels threaten public water safety. It is a universal concern — several areas worldwide have not seen rainfall in years, while 23% of the population lives in flood-risk regions. Regardless of the agent, climate change continues to pose a considerable threat to the supply and potability of water.

Pollution is another huge problem. Water contamination presents a considerable health risk to humans and entire ecosystems. Incidentally, anthropogenic activities are the leading causes of water pollution worldwide. For example, agriculture uses 70% of the Earth’s freshwater but is also a heavy polluter.

Industrial activities like mining, burning fossil fuels and oil exploration also contribute to massive pollution. Runoff and waste discharges from these processes contaminate aquatic ecosystems, increasing the risk of exposure to public water systems, especially with the acceleration of urbanization.

Clean drinking water for all 

Improving accessibility to potable water across the country is paramount. According to the CDC, about half of children in schools are underhydrated. While increasing access is essential, it is equally important to ensure the cleanliness and reliability of the water supply.

As part of the SDWA requirements, the EPA has established National Primary Drinking Water Regulations to enforce public water systems’ primary standards and treatment techniques. The program currently has guidelines for many contaminants and maximum contaminant level goals, which allow an adequate margin of safety in the event of exposure or consumption.

The EPA also established secondary regulations to ensure public water systems maintain output quality based on predefined standards outside of health considerations. These pertain to characteristics like color, taste and smell. Finally, the SDWA prescribes a process for the EPA to name pollutants outside its Contaminant Candidate List and to publish an updated list every five years.

Here’s to 50 years of drinking safe water

The SDWA has been fundamental to the safety of drinking water in public systems across the U.S. over the last half-century. As the country grapples with more challenges from climate change and human-caused pollution, this crucial law will be vital to ensuring the future cleanliness and integrity of water infrastructure. 


About the Author

Ellie Gabel

Ellie is a versatile freelancer as well as the associate editor at Revolutionized.com. With a lifelong love for sustainability and a knack for blending science and tech in her writing, she explores how modern innovations are shaping the world we live in. Ellie lives in Raleigh, NC, with her husband and their cat.

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