Almost everyone in the United States consumes tap water and doesn’t even think about it.
When you add water to recipes, drink it while you work out, or bathe a dog, you rarely consider the water source and the measures to make it accessible and safe.
In an effort to make water safer for human consumption, the United States Congress passed two major pieces of legislation:
- The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) in 1974
- The Clean Water Act (CWA) in 1977
Until the early 1900s, there were no national drinking water regulations to protect public health. Waterborne illnesses like typhoid fever, cholera, and dysentery were not uncommon in places with poor drinking water quality.
Both the SDWA and CWA have been successful in making water supplies safer for human consumption and reduce health risk.
Waterborne illnesses have declined dramatically since these laws were enacted to protect public drinking water systems.
The Safe Drinking Water Act continues to evolve as science advances and new unregulated contaminants are identified.
Table of Contents
What is the Safe Drinking Water Act?
The Safe Drinking Water Act (or Drinking Water Safety Act) is the main federal U.S. law that ensures the quality of Americans’ drinking water.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the primary enforcement authority in charge of the SDWA at the federal level.
Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, community water systems must meet certain standards for drinking water contaminants that could be harmful to human health.
History of the Safe Drinking Water Act
In 1974 President Gerald R. Ford signed the Safe Drinking Water Act into law. The laws have helped set standards to ensure safe and effective drinking water for all U.S. citizens. Nevertheless, this bill has largely shifted its monitoring powers to state and local governments and created a confusing and complex system of standards to adhere to and enforce.
As federal environmental laws change, drinking water supplies face new health risks from unregulated contaminants, and public health concern makes the news, the administration and enforcement of this law presents enormous challenges.
History of Safe Drinking Water in the United States before 1974
The American Water Administration was first introduced in the early 20th century. Since the establishment of the Republic, water was largely treated and localized.
It started with the adoption of a federal government-sponsored bill in 1912 aimed to stop the transmission of microbial contaminants including bacteria from entering public water systems.
The next significant event in water regulation occurred in 1948 with the passing of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments.
This bill aimed to start controlling and preventing water pollution.
Sewage treatment plants were established, and effluent standards were set for different industries.
Despite these efforts, many waterways were still too polluted for human contact, let alone drinking.
A key weakness of this bill was that it did not set water quality standards for drinking water that can chemicals that lead to adverse health effects.
As a result, in many cases, the only thing stopping companies from dumping toxic chemicals and other pollutants into local waterways was the fear of public backlash.
This lack of regulation led to several high-profile water contamination scandals in the 1960s, such as the Times Beach incident in Missouri.
In response to public outcry, Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974 under the management of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)/
The Safe Drinking Water Act has undergone several amendments since it was first passed in 1974. The most recent and significant amendment occurred in 1986, when Congress added new regulations for lead.
Challenges facing the Safe Drinking Water Act
Despite achieving the necessary level of control and safety to prevent contamination of drinking water the Safe Drinking Water Act faces challenges. About 85% of the US population uses non-regulated drinking water — a source that fell under the regulatory restrictions of the SDWA.
Currently, private well operators are not regulated by the SDWA, which can lead to contamination of schools and home water.
The SDWA does not apply to bottled water, which is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and not the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Effectiveness of the SDWA
Across the last 40 years drinking water has increased substantially because the Safe Drinking Water Act has taken additional regulations.
Before the passage of these new laws, the majority of the country did not have clean drinking water, and the American people now enjoy some of the safest water on earth.
More information about the SDWA
If you’d like to learn more about this important piece of legislation or find out how you can help support its efforts, please visit the EPA website for a summary of the SDWA.