How Safe is Your Drinking Water?

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has made it easier for consumers to find out whether their drinking water meets Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) standards.  On May 16, 2011, EPA announced an update to ECHO , the Enforcement and Compliance History Online, an electronic tool maintained by the EPA Office of Ground and Drinking Water.  Updates to ECHO “support President Obama’s directive to make it easier for the public to search for and use the information we collect,” according to Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office for Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.

ECHO offers consumers the tools to view drinking water quality compliance rates and violations in their communities.  One feature of ECHO allows users to enter their zip code and view a Google map labeling the compliance of local businesses and links to compliance reports.  Another tool allows search parameters such as: state, county, city, or tribe territory; system type; source water type; population served; type of owner/operator; and various degrees of compliance violation.  Consumers can view the number and types of drinking water violations that occur within these search options.  EPA has recorded a webinar on using ECHO.

The Safe Drinking Water Act

Congress passed the SDWA in 1974 and amended it in 1996; the act authorizes EPA to set and enforce standards for drinking water to protect against both naturally-occurring and man-made contaminants in drinking water.  EPA regulates levels of microorganisms, disinfectants, disinfectant byproducts, radionuclides, and other chemicals through its National Primary Drinking Water Regulations.

How do substances in drinking water become regulated?  Under SDWA, EPA established ongoing procedures by which potential contaminants are monitored and considered for regulation based on criteria that evaluate their impact on public health.  If it is decided that a substance will be regulated under SDWA, a risk assessment is conducted and then EPA sets an enforceable maximum contaminant level for that substance in drinking water.   The public may comment at each important stage of evaluation.

Monitoring Drinking Water Quality

It is primarily the responsibility of state and tribe drinking water programs to ensure that water quality standards are met.  Direct oversight of water systems is conducted by state drinking water programs.  Public water systems, of which there are over 170,000, are responsible for regular testing to ensure that contaminants in tap water do not exceed standards.  These systems report water quality results to the state and to consumers.  Under SDWA, drinking water standards are enforceable by law, and any water system not meeting safety standards is subject to administrative orders, legal actions, or fines by the states or EPA.

When drinking water has been contaminated in a manner that could affect the immediate health and well-being of consumers, suppliers must announce the violation and its potential health effects, share steps for correcting the violation, and instruct on what a consumer should do or how to use alternative water supplies.  Less serious violations are reported to consumers in their utility bills, in a Consumer Confidence Report, or by mail.

The Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water estimates that about 4 percent of public water systems are considered serious violators.  This percentage is decreasing, according to EPA, as lead agencies, predominantly states, more efficiently address noncompliance.  Meanwhile, thanks to EPA efforts to improve ECHO, consumers have a convenient online tool for monitoring the safety of their drinking water.


Linda Golodner is President Emeritus of the National Consumers League and Vice Chair of the Water Quality & Health Council.