Water Executives Celebrate Safe Drinking Water Act Achievements, Outline Future Challenges

The 40th anniversary of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was recently celebrated in a water-sector-sponsored event at the National Press Club. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy delivered the keynote address at the SWDA forum, followed by comments from water association executives regarding the legislation’s achievements and the challenges that lie ahead.


By Patrick Crow

The 40th anniversary of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was recently celebrated in a water-sector-sponsored event at the National Press Club. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy delivered the keynote address at the SDWA forum, followed by comments from water association executives regarding the legislation's achievements and the challenges that lie ahead.

The American Water Works Association (AWWA), Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, National Association of Water Companies, Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, and National Rural Water Association all staged the event. McCarthy noted that before the SDWA, 40 percent of the nation's drinking water systems failed to meet even basic health standards.

"Today, we almost take safe drinking water for granted. It's such a basic need -- and the Safe Drinking Water Act has been such a success -- we sometimes lose sight of how far we've come," she said. "Americans drink over 1 billion glasses of tap water every day. We enjoy the cleanest drinking water in the world, with more than 90 percent of our citizens receiving water that meets all standards, all the time. We owe that accomplishment to this incredible law and to your (the water sector's) work at the state and local level and on innovation."

McCarthy also noted that EPA has estimated U.S. utilities need $384 billion in drinking water infrastructure investments for maintenance, repairs and replacement. "Meanwhile, budgets have been tight at all levels of government, and it doesn't look like that'll change anytime soon," she said. "So we're looking to integrate our work across the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, and we need new approaches to infrastructure, partnerships and source water protection."

David LaFrance, AWWA CEO, praised the employees of water utilities across the nation, calling them "the water system professionals that make your water safe every single day." LaFrance also noted that SDWA's success has created a challenge for the water sector: With the convenience of safe drinking water at every tap and water dispenser across the nation, the public doesn't fully appreciate the benefit it is receiving.

A few days earlier at a Senate Energy and Environment Committee subpanel, the focus was on the future. Water utility officials briefed senators on their problems and solutions to water and wastewater challenges. Andrew Kricun, executive director/chief engineer of the Camden County (N.J.) Municipal Utilities Authority, observed that in 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation's drinking water and wastewater infrastructure system a "D" grade. "This is indicative of a very significant vulnerability -- and corresponding threat -- to the public health, the commerce and the environment of our country," he said.

In addition to optimizing environmental performance and cost efficiency, Kricun said that clean water utilities and their regulatory agencies "must continue to make environmental education a top priority in order to gain needed support for infrastructure improvements from ratepayers and to help develop the environmentalists and ratepayers of the future."

Jerry Johnson, general manager/CEO of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, noted that its ratepayers face a $750-million tab to replace underground water pipes over the next six years. "Our biggest challenge is funding. Ninety-five percent of our revenue comes from our customers, but our customers are using less water through conservation and more efficient appliances," he said. That has prompted the commission to shift its operating model, moving from heavy reliance on fluctuating rate-driven revenue toward fixed-fee charges.

John C. Hall, director of the Center for Regulatory Reasonableness, agreed that innovation is important, but argued that the need to update EPA's regulatory approaches is even more critical.

"EPA's relentless creation of new compliance requirements based on limited information, its continued imposition of unauthorized regulatory mandates, and its failure to update decades-old regulatory approaches are the biggest impediments to true water pollution control innovation and protection of ecological resources," he said

Hall cited three examples of these deterrents: the ban on split flow treatment; the policy that all sewage system overflows must be eliminated regardless of the circumstances; and the move to expand the "Waters of the U.S." definition rather than seek innovative stormwater controls.

About the Author: Patrick Crow covered the U.S. Congress and federal agencies for 21 years as a reporter for industry magazines. He has reported on water issues for the past 15 years. Crow is now an Austin, Texas-based freelance writer.

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