Raise a glass—of tap water, that is. December 16, 2014 marks the 40 years since the enactment of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). Although many states had drinking water standards before SDWA, there was no national standard for public drinking water protections.
The 1970s saw a significant wave of environmental statutes enacted by the US government. President Gerald Ford signed SDWA into law on December 16, 1974. In addition to SDWA, that decade also saw the enactment of the Clean Air Act (1970) and the Clean Water Act (1972), as well as the formation of the US Environmental Protection Agency (1970) and the first Earth Day (1970).
But this isn’t a history or civics lesson (well, maybe a little). The question then is: What does the Safe Drinking Water Act do? Glad you asked!
The Safe Drinking Water Act sets standards for the safety of drinking water including disinfection, filtration, and setting maximum contaminant levels. Public water supplies must meet these minimum, health-based standards when supplying drinking water to 25 or more people. In addition to setting standards for the distributed water, SDWA reaches secondary parts of the drinking water system. For instance, SDWA sets the amount of lead that can be in plumbing products that come in contact with drinking water, and regulates potable water on airline flights. For drinking water that comes from groundwater sources, SDWA requires protections for wellhead zones—those areas where groundwater is extracted for municipal drinking water. And yes, SDWA protects areas that use surface water as drinking water sources (like rivers, lakes, and reservoirs). There are even whistleblower safeguards for people who report violations of the standards. In total, SDWA is responsible for substantial improvements to public health through virus and chemical removal, source protection, and monitoring and other efforts.
It is also important to note, though, that SDWA does not regulate bottled water or private wells (those serving fewer than 25 people). While there are recommendations for private wells, non-public sources of drinking water are largely unregulated.
In order to ensure public systems are meeting the SDWA requirements, the law requires certified laboratory testing for drinking water—overseen by a Principal State Laboratory (usually the state public health or environmental laboratory; to learn more, see APHL’s position statement). Those results must be made available to the public in the form of Consumer Confidence Reports (CCRs). While increasingly available electronically, these CCRs are typically sent to water customers annually and explain the contaminant levels in individual water systems.
I encourage you to learn more about SDWA and some of the details of the law. SDWA ensures that the water at your kitchen faucet is safe for you, your family and your neighbors. So while I normally wouldn’t toast with water, I’ll make an exception this time and raise my glass to say happy anniversary to the Safe Drinking Water Act!