Key Issues > Water Quality and Protection
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Water Quality and Protection

Over the last 50 years, the nation’s water quality and drinking water have improved, but challenges remain.

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Safe and clean water is necessary for human and environmental health and the nation’s economic well-being. Over the past 50 years, the nation’s water quality and drinking water have improved, but threats to water quality and safety remain. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the states have identified almost 70,000 water bodies nationwide that do not meet water quality standards. Additionally, the discovery of toxins in our communities, such as elevated levels of lead in drinking water in Flint, Michigan in 2015 and emerging contaminants near military bases such as per- and polyfluoralkyl substances (PFAS), renewed awareness about the risks that lead and other chemical compounds pose to public health.

The EPA and other federal agencies face a number of challenges in ensuring that the nation has access to safe and clean water.

Ensuring safe drinking water

Under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), EPA establishes legally enforceable standards that limit the levels of specific contaminants in drinking water. EPA identifies unregulated contaminants, monitors them, and determines whether to regulate them based on things like how dangerous they are to public health, and how often they occur. The agency has issued standards for around 90 contaminants to date. However, EPA could more efficiently collect data on unregulated contaminants in order to determine whether they need to be regulated. Additionally, public water systems must comply with monitoring, reporting, and other requirements established by EPA and responsible states. But the data that states reported to EPA did not always reflect the frequency of health-based and monitoring violations by community water systems or the status of enforcement actions.  

Additionally, the Lead and Copper Rule requires water systems to test for lead and treat water to help prevent corroded pipes from leaching lead. The 68,000 water systems serving the majority of U.S. residents are subject to this rule, and must test in high-risk areas near lead pipes. However, many lead pipe locations are unknown. EPA should collect data on lead pipes to improve its oversight of the rule. Lead in school drinking water is also of concern because it is a daily source of water for over 50 million children. EPA and the Department of Education should promote lead testing and improve guidance for school districts and in child care settings.

Under the SDWA, EPA is also charged with protecting underground sources of drinking water from contamination. It does so through the Underground Injection Control (UIC) program, which regulates the injection of wastewater into underground wells. However, EPA has not collected specific inspection or complete and consistent enforcement information or consistently conducted oversight activities to assess whether state and EPA-managed UIC programs for oil and gas wastewater disposal wells are protecting underground sources of drinking water.

How Oil and Gas Wells Can Contaminate Underground Drinking Water

How Oil and Gas Wells Can Contaminate Underground Drinking Water

Protecting national waters

The Clean Water Act (CWA) established a nationwide approach to improving and maintaining the quality of rivers, streams, lakes, and other water bodies. Under this act, EPA and the states share responsibility for protecting water quality. The act establishes requirements for dealing with point sources of pollution—pollution discharged from sources such as pipes from industrial plants or wastewater plants.

States also play a key role in managing water pollution from nonpoint sources—such as runoff from farms, parking lots, or streets—which is the leading cause of pollution of the nation’s waters. States set water quality standards, monitor water quality, and identify water bodies that do not meet their standards. For waters that do not meet water quality standards, states must develop Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL)—a pollutant budget—which EPA approves. EPA and the states then work to restrict pollution to these levels—for example, by providing incentives to landowners to reduce nonpoint source pollution. However, the TMDL program relies on voluntary measures, leaving many of the nation’s waters impaired and the goals of the CWA unmet.    

Ensuring climate-resilient water utilities

Extreme weather related to climate change potentially threatens utilities that produce drinking water and treat wastewater. EPA provides significant financial resources to assist utilities in repairing and replacing their infrastructure. It also provides technical assistance to utilities to improve their resilience to extreme weather. However, EPA’s program is small and can’t help nationwide. But the EPA could organize a network of technical advisors to assist nationally.

Interactive Graphic thumbnail

An interactive version of this graphic is available on page 20 of the report PDF.

Restoring ecosystems

EPA has undertaken large-scale watershed restoration efforts, which involve protecting aquatic ecosystems and wetlands in important geographic areas. However, EPA and other federal agencies could take a number of actions to improve these efforts.

For instance:

Restoration Projects at the South Bay Salt Ponds in San Francisco Bay Delta Watershed

Ensuring international water quality

The International Boundary and Water Commission in the State Department manages two wastewater plants on the U.S-Mexico border at Nogales, Arizona and San Ysidro, California. These plants are subject to the CWA, which prohibits the discharge of pollutants from point sources into waters of the United States without a permit from EPA or an authorized state. But population growth and aging plant infrastructure allow stormwater to bring bacteria, trash, and sediment from Mexico into the United States—affecting public health and the environment in Arizona and California. Congress should consider directing the Commission to identify alternatives—including cost estimates and funding sources—to help resolve these continuing water quality problems.

Plastic bottles, tires, and other debris caught behind a trash rack, Tijuana River, United States

Plastic bottles, tires, and other debris caught behind a trash rack, Tijuana River, United States

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  • portrait of Alfredo Gomez
    • Alfredo Gomez
    • Director, Natural Resources and Environment
    • 202-512-3841