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US Safe Drinking Water Act

Policy Details

Policy Type: Policy
Jurisdiction: Federal
Status: Passed
Tags: Public Health, Water Justice

Policy Summary

The U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), enacted in 1974 and amended several times since, is the principal federal law aimed at ensuring safe drinking water for the public. The Act authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to establish national health-based standards for drinking water to protect against both naturally occurring and man-made contaminants. Key components of the SDWA include:

  • National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWRs): These enforceable standards are set to protect public health by limiting the levels of specific contaminants in drinking water. The EPA continuously updates these standards based on the latest scientific research.
  • Public Water System Supervision Program (PWSS): This program involves the EPA and state agencies overseeing public water systems to ensure compliance with NPDWRs. States can receive primary enforcement responsibility (“primacy”) if they meet EPA requirements.
  • Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) and Treatment Techniques: The EPA sets MCLs for various contaminants. When setting an MCL isn’t feasible, the EPA may establish treatment techniques to control the levels of contaminants.
  • Monitoring and Reporting: Public water systems must regularly monitor their water supply for specified contaminants and report their findings to state agencies and the EPA. They must also notify the public if any standards are violated.
  • Consumer Confidence Reports (CCRs): Public water systems must provide annual reports to their customers detailing water quality, including the presence of contaminants and compliance with drinking water standards.
  • Source Water Protection: The SDWA promotes the protection of water sources, including rivers, lakes, and reservoirs, from contamination. This includes requiring states to develop Source Water Assessment Programs (SWAPs) to evaluate the vulnerability of their water sources.
  • Funding and Assistance Programs: The SDWA established programs such as the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) to provide financial assistance to water systems for infrastructure improvements and compliance with standards.
  • Emergency Powers: The EPA can act in response to emergencies that are a risk to public health, including issuing administrative orders and providing support for emergency response efforts. 

While the SDWA provides a framework for ensuring safe drinking water, systemic issues such as infrastructure challenges, economic disparities, regulatory enforcement gaps, and historical injustices contribute to Black Americans still being disproportionately exposed to unsafe drinking water. Addressing these disparities requires comprehensive efforts that include equitable infrastructure investment, improved regulatory enforcement, and community empowerment through advocacy and policy reform.

  • Infrastructure Challenges: Many communities, particularly those with predominantly Black populations, often have aging or inadequate water infrastructure, a testament of the systemic divestment our communities have faced. This can lead to issues such as lead contamination from old pipes or inadequate treatment facilities for forever chemicals like PFAS, which disproportionately affect Black and  marginalized communities.
  • Environmental Justice Concerns: Black communities are more likely to be located near industrial facilities and agricultural operations that can contaminate water sources. Poor enforcement of environmental regulations and zoning practices may exacerbate exposure to pollutants.
  • Economic Disparities: Low-income communities, which are disproportionately Black, may struggle to afford adequate water treatment or filtration systems. This can result in higher exposure to contaminants due to lack of access to clean water resources.
  • Regulatory and Enforcement Issues: While the SDWA sets national standards for drinking water quality, enforcement and compliance can vary across states and localities. Some areas may not receive adequate oversight or resources to ensure water quality standards are met consistently.
  • Historical Context: There is a historical legacy of discriminatory practices in housing, infrastructure development, and environmental policy that have marginalized black communities. This history can contribute to ongoing disparities in access to clean water and environmental health risks. 

While there is much to be improved, the SDWA provides a foundational framework for addressing these issues through regulatory standards, community engagement, legal protections, and access to information.


Does the policy solution re-distribute power from mainstream institutions to impacted Black community?  

Under the SDWA, citizens have the right to file lawsuits against violators of the Act. This includes cases where public water systems fail to comply with drinking water standards or where contaminants are found in drinking water that exceed allowable limits. Black communities and environmental advocacy groups have used citizen suits to hold public water systems accountable for violations that impact their communities. Black communities have also engaged in advocacy and organizing efforts to build power and raise awareness about drinking water quality and affordability issues and to pressure local, state, and federal governments to address environmental injustices. This activism often includes public protests, community meetings, and collaborations with environmental organizations. The SDWA provides technical assistance and funding opportunities to help historically marginalized and divested communities comply with drinking water standards and improve infrastructure. This support aims to reduce disparities in access to safe drinking water by assisting communities that may face financial or technical challenges in maintaining water quality.

Does this policy address needs impacting diverse groups within Black communities (Black femmes, Black LGBTQ+ communities, Black immigrants, people in poverty, differently abled, people impacted by justice system)? If so, how?  

More information is needed to make an accurate assessment of how the SDWA has impacted diverse groups within Black communities.

Does this policy provide more decision-making power at the hands of Black communities?  

The SDWA requires public water systems to regularly monitor and report water quality data to regulatory authorities and the public. Black communities have monitored their local water sources and reported violations to regulatory agencies, which can lead to enforcement actions or corrective measures. The SDWA emphasizes public participation in decision-making processes related to drinking water quality. It requires public water systems to engage with and inform consumers about water quality through Consumer Confidence Reports (CCRs). While engagement, outreach and enforceability must be improved, this transparency seeks to empower communities to be aware of any potential risks to their drinking water and to participate actively in efforts to improve and protect water quality.

Does the proposed policy undermine extractive economies like capitalism and restore community power around a local and regenerative economy/ primary production?

By increasing transparency and public participation, there is an opportunity to hold the federal government accountable. However, there are no mechanisms in this legislation that supports the local economy.

Does the proposed policy repair past harm and uphold civil and human rights, health and environmental protections?  

The SDWA grants citizens the right to file lawsuits, known as citizen suits, against violators of the Act. This legal recourse allows affected communities, including those disproportionately impacted by past environmental injustices, to seek remedies for violations that threaten their access to safe drinking water. The SDWA supports civil rights by ensuring equal protection under the law. While the SDWA aims to reduce environmental inequalities that have historically disadvantaged Black communities, there is a lot of room for improvement and enforcement because all of us are NOT equally protected under the law. Black communities often collaborate with legal and environmental advocacy groups that provide expertise in environmental law, advocacy strategies, and litigation support. These partnerships are necessary to strengthen community efforts to address drinking water quality issues through legal avenues.

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