US Drinking Water Safety Regulations: Federal
The federal regulations regarding drinking water quality in the US include the Safe Water Drinking Act, the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations, the National Secondary Drinking Water Regulations, and the Clean Water Act, the last of which relates mostly to ground water safety/contamination. Each of these is under the authority of the EPA, with help from states, tribes, and other groups, like the CDC. Bottled water is held to a different standard – the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act – and is under the purview of the FDA.
Safe Drinking Water Act (SWDA)
- The Safe Drinking Water Act (SWDA), which was passed by Congress in 1974, is the primary set of standards regulating drinking water quality in the United States. It was amended in both 1986 and 1996, and outlines the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) “authority to set the standards for drinking water quality,” and oversight for the implementation and maintenance of those standards for “states, localities, and water suppliers” in the US.
- Within the EPA, the Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water (OGWDW) works in conjunction with “states, tribes, and many partners” to protect drinking water and ground water, and therefore protect public health. This office is in charge of overseeing implementations of the SWDA. They help develop / implement federal drinking water standards, oversee and fund state-level drinking water programs and protection programs, help “small drinking water systems,” protect underground drinking water sources, and educate the public about drinking water quality and issues. The federal Office of Water (OW) is the overarching body under which the OGWDW falls. The OW is responsible for overseeing implementation of all legislation relating to water, including drinking and ground waters, as well as aquatic ecosystems like lakes, marshes, wetlands, and oceans.
- The EPA has set “maximum contaminant levels and/or treatment technique requirements for over 90 different contaminants,” which include “microorganisms, disinfectants, disinfections-by-products, inorganic chemicals, organic chemicals, and radionuclides.” Of note, there are lists of “unregulated contaminants” that the EPA and CDC (Centers for Disease Control) monitor and make determinations periodically. These are called “regulatory determinations” – and this information is used to “prioritize research and data collection efforts” to inform the regulatory bodies of possible contaminants to monitor and or on which to set standards.
National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWR)
- Some of the regulations outlined in the SWDA include the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWR).
- These are the “legally enforceable primary standards and treatment techniques that apply to public water systems,” and are in place to protect public health by limiting contaminant levels in public water systems. A complete list of the allowable limits for each contaminant can be found here. Compliance with these standards is under the authority of the EPA, which works with other organizations, like the CDC, tribal organizations, and states, to enforce the laws.
National Secondary Drinking Water Regulations (NSDWR)
- Some of the regulations in the SWDA also include National Secondary Drinking Water Regulations (NSDWR).
- These are “non-mandatory water quality standards for 15 contaminants,” that help keep drinking water aesthetically pleasing by maintaining high quality levels of “taste, color, and odor.” The contaminants monitored by these regulations “are not considered to present a risk to human health.” While these regulations are not enforceable at the federal level, the EPA requires notice for exceedance of the levels, especially on contaminants like fluoride.
Bottled Drinking Water
- Notably, bottled water is not under the authority of the EPA; this is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
- The FDA has regulations for commercially bottled water under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act which “sets standards for bottled water that are based on ones developed by the EPA.” Additionally, companies in the bottled water industry must follow all FDA guidelines laid out in the Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMPs) manuals for both the processing and bottling of the drinking water.
Clean Water Act
- The Clean Water Act (CWA), as it’s commonly known, began as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, and “was the first major US law to address water pollution.” It was amended in 1972, and has seen multiple additions and revisions over the years, including 1978, 1981, 1987, and 1990, during each of which needs standards were set in place or programs were replaced with those that served current needs. All of these standards help keep lakes, rivers, streams, marshlands and wetlands, oceans, and all waterways in the US as pollution-free as possible. The EPA is the overseeing authority for these regulations.
This information was synthesized from various governmental websites related to water quality laws in the United States, including the EPA and CDC websites.