The Safe Drinking Water Act Turns 40

Raise a glass of clean tap water in thanks for the Safe Drinking Water Act. Photo by Boston University.

If you have traveled outside the developed world you are probably aware that safe drinking water is not to be taken for granted. Tourists are routinely told to only drink bottled water or risk dysentery. Not so in the United States where all tap water in the country must meet rigid standards for contaminants. For that we can thank the Safe Drinking Water Act, first passed in December forty years ago.

The Safe Drinking Water Act achieves three things. First, it sets standards for pathogens and other contaminants. Those standards are universal through the country so that water in Arkansas is just as safe as water in Washington or Maine. Second, the legislation provides funding for development and upgrades to drinking water facilities. Third, the law requires that drinking water suppliers report back to their customers on the quality of the water they are receiving. This provides public accountability.

It wasn't always the case that tap water could be assumed to be safe. In earlier times cholera outbreaks were common. Development of standards for drinking water came about in the early 1900s but until passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act standards differed between states and even communities.

The Safe Drinking Water Act is an important but unheralded piece of environmental legislation, but it has not addressed all challenges. The funding for drinking water facilities has not kept pace with demand. As population grows and facilities age we have not been able to replace them in a timely manner, and there is a backlog of projects. Additionally, there are a host of new and newly detected contaminants for which standards have yet to be developed. These include so-called emerging contaminants from personal care products or flame retardants and also cyanobacteria toxins like those that closed the drinking water facilities in Toledo, Ohio this summer. Standards for these substances still vary from state to state.

Raise a glass of clean tap water in thanks for the Safe Drinking Water Act. The law may not be perfect but gives us a degree of confidence in the water from our taps that most of the world envies.