EPA Principles for Safe Drinking Water? I'll Drink to That!

Try this at home. Take a glass of water and pour some food coloring in it. Now try to get the food coloring out of it before you drink it.

If you that sounds a little difficult, it serves to illustrate why "Looking upstream" to protect drinking water sources is a key strategy for Clean Water Action. We can't keep letting pollution run amok and then address concerns only when the problem gets to our tap. This puts an enormous burden on consumers of tap water and on communities who have to make sure their public water systems not only meet all federal and state standards but that their consumers have confidence in the water

That's why the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) announcement of a new approach to protecting drinking water is good news for all of us. The EPA has announced four principles on which they will seek input over the next months. This new strategy gets at some of the tough questions we face when we consider drinking water contamination and the implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Those principles are:

  • Address contaminants as a group rather than one at a time so that enhancement of drinking water protection can be achieved cost-effectively.
  • Foster development of new drinking water technologies to address health risks posed by a broad array of contaminants.
  • Use the authority of multiple statutes to help protect drinking water.
  • Partner with states to share more complete data from monitoring at public water systems (PWS).

With these principles in mind, we can begin to address some core problems in protecting drinking water. Here are some important concepts we can work on in the context of the new EPA principles:

It takes too long to set a federal drinking water standard. We've suggested for years that we need to consider regulating contaminants in drinking water in groups, or "families," rather than going through the multi-year process for each and every contaminant one by one. EPA is now exploring this option. This is represents some breakthrough thinking.

Our laws meant to protect public health and the environment often seem to operate independently of each other. We can't seem to use the Toxics Substances Control Act (TSCA) to eliminate chemicals of great concern, but when trace amounts of those chemicals show up in drinking water sources consumers are rightfully very concerned. The same goes for pesticide registration under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). EPA wants to explore use of laws besides the Safe Drinking Water Act to truly protect drinking water. We have a lot of ideas on this one, including reform of TSCA and ways to use existing programs.

EPA will also explore how to speed effective and efficient treatment technologies to all communities and how to improve water monitoring and use that data to better protect drinking water.

We couldn't agree more with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, who noted in a speech yesterday that the increasing prevalence of chemicals in our products, in our water and in our bodies is a real cause for concern, and that this is indeed the unfinished business of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

As with all efforts to break out of old ways of doing things, it won't be easy or smooth to institute these changes. Clean Water Action intends to be in the forefront of pushing for success of these common sense approaches. For the sake of protecting public health we can no longer tolerate activities that introduce pollution into our water. When they show up in our drinking water, it is too late. Pollution prevention and working "upstream" have always been key approaches for Clean Water Action. We're excited to see that they might become a guiding principle for EPA's drinking water program.

You may be able to judge if a glass is half full or half empty, but there is no such thing as a glass of water that is only half polluted.