Safe drinking water law 25 years old: Cause to celebrate?

Published May 1, 2000

December 1999 marked the 25th anniversary of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). While those employed for a quarter of a century implementing the act may have cause to celebrate, rural-dwelling American may think otherwise. Since its inception, the SDWA has continually jacked-up the price of piped drinking water for America’s poor, placing it out of reach for many.

The law requires that if your water comes from a “public water system” (which means it’s piped and serves more than 25 people), your community must meet 86 drinking water regulations, employ expensive tests to monitor for contaminants, and meet various costly paperwork mandates. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, systems need $12.1 billion for compliance with existing regulations; they will need $138 billion over the next 20 years. The cost per household is about $20 a year for large systems and $145 for small systems. These costs will grow as myriad new regulations take effect.

If you can’t afford caviar

Rather than pay the price for regulated water, nearly a million rural Americans access water from untreated sources, such as lakes and streams or Mother Nature’s periodic rains. Another 15 million Americans access water from private wells.

Non-piped water (particularly well water) is often, but not always, safe. A recent EPA survey found chloroform bacteria in 78 percent of the drinking water samples taken from U.S. households that rely on surface water. Forty-one percent of 5,500 drinking water wells contained coliform bacteria, and 27 percent contained E. coli.

Piped drinking water could greatly improve water quality for many of these homes, but prohibitively high costs associated with SDWA regulations make that goal unattainable for many. Many communities have, in fact, disconnected from systems or have broken them into smaller units to avoid expensive federal regulation.

In addition to making piped water prohibitively expensive for some, 1996 revisions to the SDWA are actually designed to deny piped water to rural communities. One provision of the law directs EPA to draft guidances to help states establish appropriate legal mechanisms to “ensure capacity.” “Capacity” here is the EPA equivalent of “ability to comply” with the 86 SDWA regulations.

In recent testimony before a congressional committee, one drinking water official touted the success of the new policy, noting EPA had approved five state programs aimed at preventing the formation of new “non-viable” water systems; 36 additional state programs are “on track.” The upshot for rural America: If you can’t afford caviar, starve.

The high cost of compliance

The 1996 rewrite of the SDWA was supposed to provide financial support for communities struggling to comply with the regulations–but communities without piped water aren’t eligible for SDWA funds. The law provides compliance assistance only to existing public water supply systems.

Moreover, the assistance funds are nowhere near sufficient to cover the costs of compliance, let alone numerous other costs facing water providers. A 1997 EPA survey found that public water systems need more than $12 billion in the immediate future and $138 billion by year 2015 for upgrades and repairs to meet safe drinking water regulations. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, rural America will need to spend $3.5 billion. Federal grants will never be sufficient to enable communities to bear such burdens.

Paying the price for compliance often means sacrificing other important needs. In one study, consumer advocate Scott Rubin found that basic expenses (food, shelter, utilities, and health care) exceeded the annual income of many rural dwellers. Raising the cost of drinking water in those communities meant sacrificing other basic necessities, such as vaccinations, noted Rubin.

Ariton, Alabama, was forced to shut down one of its wells to free up funds to help cover the cost of SDWA monitoring requirements, jeopardizing the town’s water supply for fire emergencies. To keep up with the continuing cost of compliance, the community was considering cuts in spending on fire department equipment, ambulance service equipment, and its planned sewage system.

In Maine, one community with just 26 piped water customers spent $350,000–nearly $13,500 per customer–to meet just one SDWA rule, according to the state’s Rural Water Association. Another Maine community with 700 water customers spent $7.3 million to meet various mandates.

Little bang for the buck

As if the high cost of compliance weren’t bad enough, public water officials have long complained that many of the expensive SDWA mandates provide few, if any, health benefits. For example, the law requires local water officials to monitor for contaminants highly unlikely to exist in a public water system. Such monitoring can cost as much as $6,000 per sample, and the law mandates monitoring several times a year for numerous chemicals.

Environmentalists claim that even at very low levels these chemicals can cause cancer. But regulations aimed at eliminating mere traces of chemicals are not likely to save lives.

In 1981, scientists Sir Richard Doll and Richard Peto noted that, “with the possible exception of asbestos in a few water supplies, we know of no established human carcinogen that is ever present in sufficient quantities in large U.S. water supplies to account for any material percentage of the total risk of cancer.”

Ironically, many consider the SDWA to be one of the better environmental laws on the books. Many Republican members of Congress frequently praise the 1996 revisions to the law.

The millions of Americans who may never see piped water thanks to that “reform” may beg to differ.

Angela Logomasini is director of risk and environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.