Safe Drinking Water Act

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Safe Drinking Water Act
Great Seal of the United States
Long title An Act to amend the Public Health Service Act to assure that the public is provided with safe drinking water, and for other purposes
Nicknames SDWA
Enacted by the 93rd United States Congress
Effective December 16, 1974
Public law Pub. L. 93-523
Statutes at Large 88 Stat. 1660 (1974)
U.S.C. sections created 42 U.S.C. § 300f
Legislative history
  • Introduced in the Senate as S. 433 by Warren Magnuson (DWA) on January 18, 1973
  • Committee consideration by Senate Commerce, House Commerce
  • Passed the Senate on June 22, 1973 
  • Passed the House on November 19, 1974 (296-84 as H.R. 13002) with amendment
  • Senate agreed to House amendment on November 26, 1974 () with further amendment
  • House agreed to Senate amendment on December 3, 1974 ()
  • Signed into law by President Gerald Ford on December 16, 1974
Major amendments

Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1986,[1]

Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1996[2]

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) is the principal federal law in the United States intended to ensure safe drinking water for the public.[3] Pursuant to the act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is required to set standards for drinking water quality and oversee all states, localities, and water suppliers who implement these standards.

SDWA applies to every public water system (PWS) in the United States.[4] There are currently about 155,000 public water systems providing water to almost all Americans at some time in their lives.[5] The Act does not cover private wells.[6]

The SDWA does not apply to bottled water. Bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.[7]

National Primary Drinking Water Regulations[edit]

The SDWA requires EPA to establish National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWRs) for contaminants that may cause adverse public health effects.[8]

The regulations include both mandatory levels (Maximum Contaminant Levels, or MCLs) and nonenforceable health goals (Maximum Contaminant Level Goals, or MCLGs) for each included contaminant. MCLs have additional significance because they can be used under the Superfund law as "Applicable or Relevant and Appropriate Requirements" in cleanups of contaminated sites on the National Priorities List.[citation needed]

Federal drinking water standards are organized into six groups:

  • Microorganisms
  • Disinfectants
  • Disinfection Byproducts
  • Inorganic Chemicals
  • Organic Chemicals
  • Radionuclides.[9]


EPA has issued standards for Cryptosporidium, Giardia lamblia, Legionella, coliform bacteria and enteric viruses. EPA also requires two microorganism-related tests to indicate water quality: plate count and turbidity.[9]


EPA has issued standards for chlorine, chloramine and chlorine dioxide.[9]

Disinfection by-products[edit]

EPA has issued standards for bromate, chlorite, haloacetic acids and trihalomethanes.[9]

Inorganic Chemicals[edit]

EPA has issued standards for antimony, arsenic, asbestos, barium, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, copper, cyanide, fluoride, lead, mercury, nitrate, nitrite, selenium and thallium.[9]

"Lead Free" plumbing requirements[edit]

Main article: Lead and copper rule

The 1986 amendments require EPA to set standards limiting the concentration of lead in public water systems, and defines "lead free" pipes as:

(1) solders and flux containing not more than 0.2 percent lead;
(2) pipes and pipe fittings containing not more than 8.0 percent lead; and
(3) plumbing fittings and fixtures as defined in industry-developed voluntary standards (issued no later than August 6, 1997), or standards developed by EPA in lieu of voluntary standards.[10]

EPA issued an initial lead and copper regulation in 1991[11] and last revised the regulation in 2007.[12]

Congress tightened the definition of "lead free" plumbing in a 2011 amendment to the Act.

Organic Chemicals[edit]

EPA has issued standards for 53 organic compounds, including benzene, dioxin (2,3,7,8-TCDD), PCBs, styrene, toluene, vinyl chloride and several pesticides.[9]


EPA has issued standards for alpha particles, beta particles and photon emitters, radium and uranium.[9]

Future standards[edit]

Non-community water systems[edit]

Future NPDWR standards will apply to non-transient non-community water systems because of concern for the long-term exposure of a stable population. It is important to note that EPA's decision to apply future NPDWRs to non-transient non-community water systems may have a significant impact on Department of Energy facilities that operate their own drinking water systems.

Unregulated contaminants[edit]

The SDWA requires EPA to identify and list unregulated contaminants which may require regulation. The Agency must publish this list, called the "Contaminant Candidate List," every five years. EPA is required to decide whether to regulate at least five or more listed contaminants. EPA uses this list to prioritize research and data collection efforts, which support the regulatory determination process.[13]

Monitoring, compliance and enforcement[edit]

Public water systems are required to regularly monitor their water for contaminants. Water samples must be analyzed using EPA-approved testing methods, by laboratories that are certified by EPA or a state agency.[14][15]

A PWS must notify its customers when it violates drinking water regulations or is providing drinking water that may pose a health risk. Such notifications are provided either immediately, as soon as possible (but within 30 days of the violation) or annually, depending on the health risk associated with the violation.[16] Community water systems—those systems that serve the same people throughout the year—must provide an annual "Consumer Confidence Report" to customers. The report identifies contaminants, if any, in the drinking water and explains the potential health impacts.[17]

Oversight of public water systems is managed by "primacy" agencies, which are either state government agencies, Indian tribes or EPA regional offices.[18] All state and territories, except Wyoming and the District of Columbia, have received primacy approval from EPA, to supervise the PWS in their respective jurisdictions.[19] A PWS is required to submit periodic monitoring reports to its primacy agency. Violations of SDWA requirements are enforced initially through a primacy agency's notification to the PWS, and if necessary following up with formal orders and fines.[20]

Related programs[edit]

Airline water supplies[edit]

In 2004, EPA tested drinking water quality on commercial aircraft and found that 15 percent of tested aircraft water systems tested positive for total coliform bacteria. EPA published a final regulation for aircraft public water systems in 2009. The regulation requires air carriers operating in the U.S. to conduct coliform sampling, management practices, corrective action, public notification, operator training, and reporting and recordkeeping. An airline with a non-complying aircraft must restrict public access to the on-board water system for a specified period.[21]

Underground Injection Control (UIC) Program[edit]

The 1974 act authorized EPA to regulate injection wells in order to protect underground sources of drinking water.[22] Congress amended the SDWA in 2005 to exclude hydraulic fracturing, an industrial process for recovering oil and natural gas, from coverage under the UIC program, except where diesel fuels are used.[23][24] This exclusion has been called the "Halliburton Loophole". Halliburton is the world's largest provider of hydraulic fracturing services.[25]

Whistleblower protection[edit]

The SDWA includes a whistleblower protection provision.[26] Employees in the US who believe they were fired or suffered another adverse action related to enforcement of this law have 30 days to file a written complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.



Prior to the SDWA there were few national enforceable requirements for drinking water. Improvements in testing were allowing the detection of smaller concentrations of contaminant and allowing more tests to be run.[27][28]

Under state programs, some water works managers mistakenly believed that the major, real threats were behind them and their primary focus was on providing consistent and effective service through aging infrastructure, with major efforts at maintaining the bacteriological quality of drinking water. [29]

1974 Act[edit]

The Safe Drinking Water Act was one of several pieces of environmental legislation in the 1970s. Discovery of organic contamination in public drinking water and the lack of enforceable, national standards persuaded Congress to take action.

Historically, up through 1914, drinking water quality in the United States was managed at the state and local level. After that, interstate waters were protected using United States Public Health Service (USPHS) standards. Ultimately the USPHS standards were adopted and expanded as national drinking water standards after passage of the 1974 law. [30]

The 1974 law very clearly defined roles and responsibilities, giving EPA the job of generating scientifically based standards that would be applicable to all water supplies that served 25 or more customers and creating a process for setting new standards. EPA was mandated to contract with the National Academy of Sciences for a major study of contaminants in drinking water that might have health significance and to issue revised regulations once the NAS report was completed. [31]

1986 amendments[edit]

The 1986 SDWA amendments required EPA to apply future NPDWRs to both community and non-transient non-community water systems when it evaluated and revised current regulations.[1] The first case in which this was applied was the "Phase I" final rule, published on July 8, 1987.[32] At that time NPDWRs were promulgated for certain synthetic volatile organic compounds and applied to non-transient non-community water systems as well as community water systems. This rulemaking also clarified that non-transient non-community water systems were not subject to MCLs that were promulgated before July 8, 1987. The 1986 amendments were signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on June 19, 1986.

In addition to requiring more contaminants to be regulated, the 1986 amendments included:

  • Well head protection
  • New monitoring for certain substances
  • Filtration for certain surface water systems
  • Disinfection for certain groundwater systems
  • Restriction on lead in solder and plumbing
  • More enforcement powers.[33]

1996 SDWA amendments[edit]

In 1996, Congress amended the Safe Drinking Water Act to emphasize sound science and risk-based standard setting, small water supply system flexibility and technical assistance, community-empowered source water assessment and protection, public right-to-know, and water system infrastructure assistance through a multibillion-dollar state revolving loan fund. The amendments were signed into law by President Bill Clinton on August 6, 1996.[2]

Main points of the 1996 amendments[edit]

  1. Consumer Confidence Reports: All community water systems must prepare and distribute annual reports about the water they provide, including information on detected contaminants, possible health effects, and the water's source.
  2. Cost-Benefit Analysis: EPA must conduct a thorough cost-benefit analysis for every new standard to determine whether the benefits of a drinking water standard justify the costs.
  3. Drinking Water State Revolving Fund.[34] States can use this fund to help water systems make infrastructure or management improvements or to help systems assess and protect their source water.
  4. Microbial Contaminants and Disinfection Byproducts: EPA is required to strengthen protection for microbial contaminants, including cryptosporidium, while strengthening control over the byproducts of chemical disinfection. EPA promulgated the Stage 1 Disinfectants and Disinfection Byproducts Rule[35] and the Interim Enhanced Surface Water Treatment Rule[36] to address these risks.
  5. Operator Certification: Water system operators must be certified to ensure that systems are operated safely. EPA issued guidelines in 1999 specifying minimum standards for the certification and recertification of the operators of community and non-transient, noncommunity water systems.[37] These guidelines apply to state operator certification programs. All states are currently implementing EPA-approved operator certification programs.
  6. Public Information and Consultation: SDWA emphasizes that consumers have a right to know what is in their drinking water, where it comes from, how it is treated, and how to help protect it. EPA distributes public information materials (through its Drinking Water Hotline, Safewater web site, and Resource Center) and holds public meetings, working with states, tribes, water systems, and environmental and civic groups, to encourage public involvement.
  7. Small Water Systems: Small water systems are given special consideration and resources under SDWA, to make sure they have the managerial, financial, and technical ability to comply with drinking water standards.

2005 amendment[edit]

Through the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the Safe Drinking Water Act was amended to exclude the underground injection of any fluids or propping agents other than diesel fuels used in hydraulic fracturing operations from being considered as "underground injections" for the purposes of the law.[38]

2011 amendment[edit]

Congress passed the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act in 2011. This amendment, effective in 2014, tightened the definition of "lead-free" plumbing fixtures and fittings.[39]

2015 amendments[edit]

The Drinking Water Protection Act was enacted on August 7, 2015.[40] It required EPA to submit to Congress a strategic plan for assessing and managing risks associated with algal toxins in drinking water provided by public water systems. EPA submitted the plan to Congress in November 2015.[41]

The Grassroots Rural and Small Community Water Systems Assistance Act was signed by President Barack Obama on December 11, 2015. The amendment provides technical assistance to small public water systems, to help them comply with National Primary Drinking Water Regulations.[42]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b United States. Pub.L. 99–359; 100 Stat. 642. "Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1986." 1986-06-19.
  2. ^ a b Pub.L. 104–182, 110 Stat. 1613. "Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1996." 1996-08-06.
  3. ^ Pub.L. 93–523; 88 Stat. 1660; 42 U.S.C. § 300f et seq. 1974-12-16.
  4. ^ A public water system has at least 15 service connections or regularly serves at least 25 individuals, at least 60 days per year. 42 U.S.C. § 300f(4)(A)
  5. ^ "Information about Public Water Systems". Drinking Water Requirements for States and Public Water Systems. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 2015-12-03. 
  6. ^ "About Private Water Wells". EPA. 2015-11-17. 
  7. ^ United States. Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, 21 U.S.C. § 301 et seq.
  8. ^ EPA. "National Primary Drinking Water Regulations." Code of Federal Regulations, 40 CFR Part 141.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g "Table of Regulated Drinking Water Contaminants". Your Drinking Water. EPA. 2016-02-08. 
  10. ^ Safe Drinking Water Act. "Prohibition on use of lead pipes, solder, and flux." 42 U.S.C. § 300g-6(d).
  11. ^ EPA. "Maximum Contaminant Level Goals and National Primary Drinking Water Regulations for Lead and Copper; Final Rule." Federal Register, 56 FR 26460, 1991-06-07.
  12. ^ "Lead and Copper Rule". Drinking Water Requirements for States and Public Water Systems. EPA. 2016-01-06. 
  13. ^ "Basic Information on the CCL and Regulatory Determination". EPA. 2015-11-25. 
  14. ^ "Learn about Drinking Water Analytical Methods". EPA. 2015-10-02. 
  15. ^ "Learn About Laboratory Certification for Drinking Water". EPA. 2015-10-07. 
  16. ^ "Public Notification Rule". Drinking Water Requirements for States and Public Water Systems. EPA. 2015-11-09. 
  17. ^ "Safe Drinking Water Act: Consumer Confidence Reports (CCR)". EPA. 2016-01-19. 
  18. ^ "Primacy Enforcement Responsibility for Public Water Systems". Drinking Water Requirements for States and Public Water Systems. EPA. 2015-11-09. 
  19. ^ EPA (2004). "Understanding the Safe Drinking Water Act." Fact sheet. Document no. EPA 816-F-04-030.
  20. ^ Washington State Department of Health, Olympia, WA. "Enforcing Drinking Water Regulations." Accessed 2014-02-19.
  21. ^ EPA. "National Primary Drinking Water Regulations: Drinking Water Regulations for Aircraft Public Water Systems." Final rule. Federal Register, 74 FR 53590, 2009-10-19.
  22. ^ SDWA. "Regulations for State programs." 42 U.S.C. § 300h
  23. ^ Energy Policy Act of 2005, (Pub.L. 109–58), approved 2005-08-08. Amended SDWA § 1421(d). See 42 U.S.C. § 300h.
  24. ^ "Natural Gas Extraction - Hydraulic Fracturing". EPA. 2016-02-01. 
  25. ^ Mark Drajem and Katarzyna Klimasinska (1 February 2012). "EPA Shrinking 'Halliburton Loophole' Threatens Obama Gas Pledge". Bloomberg. Retrieved 22 March 2012. 
  26. ^ SDWA. "General provisions." 42 U.S.C. § 300j-9(i)
  27. ^ Bredickas, Vincent; Hartnett, Kim (1998-02-24). "Safe Drinking Water Act". Water Treatment Primer. Blacksburg, VA: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Retrieved 2010-03-21. 
  28. ^ Theiss, Jeffrey C.; Stoner, Gary D.; Shimkin, Michael B.; Weisburger, Elizabeth K. (1977). "Test for Carcinogenicity of Organic Contaminants of United States Drinking Waters by Pulmonary Tumor Response in Strain A Mice" (PDF). Cancer Research. American Association for Cancer Research. 37 (8 Pt 1): 2717–2720. ISSN 1538-7445. PMID 872098. 
  29. ^ EPA Alumni Association: Senior EPA officials discuss early implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, Video, Transcript (see p4).
  30. ^ EPA Alumni Association: Senior EPA officials discuss early implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, Video, Transcript (see p3).
  31. ^ EPA Alumni Association: Senior EPA officials discuss early implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, Video, Transcript (see pages 4,5).
  32. ^ EPA (1987). "National Primary Drinking Water Regulations – Synthetic Organic Chemicals; Monitoring for Unregulated Contaminants; Final Rule." Federal Register, 52 FR 25690, 1987-07-08.
  33. ^ EPA (1986). "President Signs Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments." Press release. 1986-06-20.
  34. ^ EPA. Drinking Water State Revolving Fund Program and implementation regulations. 40 CFR 3500 (Subpart L).
  35. ^ EPA (1998). "Stage 1 Disinfectants and Disinfection Byproducts Rule." Federal Register, 63 FR 69389, 1998-12-16.
  36. ^ EPA (1998). "Interim Enhanced Surface Water Treatment Rule ." Federal Register, 63 FR 69477, 1998-12-16.
  37. ^ EPA (1999). "Final guidelines for the Certification and Recertification of the Operators of Community and Nontransient Noncommunity Public Water Systems." Federal Register, 64 FR 5915, 1999-02-05.
  38. ^ United States. "Energy Policy Act of 2005", Section 322, Hydraulic Fracturing
  39. ^ Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act. Pub.L. 111–380; 124 Stat. 4131. Approved January 4, 2011.
  40. ^ Drinking Water Protection Act. Pub.L. 114–45. Approved August 7, 2015.
  41. ^ EPA (November 2015). "Algal Toxin Risk Assessment and Management Strategic Plan for Drinking Water."
  42. ^ Grassroots Rural and Small Community Water Systems Assistance Act. Pub.L. 114–98. Approved December 11, 2015.

External links[edit]

Further Reading[edit]

EPA Alumni Association: Drinking Water, Half Century of Progress – a brief history of U.S. efforts to protecti drinking water