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Monday, June 21, 2010

Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA): Selected Regulatory and Legislative Issues

Mary Tiemann
Specialist in Environmental Policy

Much progress has been made in assuring the quality of public water supplies since the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was first enacted in 1974. Public water systems must meet extensive regulations, and water utility management has become a much more complex and professional endeavor. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has regulated some 91 drinking water contaminants, and more regulations are pending. In 2007, the number of community water systems reporting no violations of drinking water standards was 89.5%. Despite nationwide progress in providing safe drinking water, an array of issues and challenges remain.

Recent issues have involved infrastructure funding needs, regulatory compliance issues, and concerns caused by detections of unregulated contaminants in drinking water, such as perchlorate and pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs). Another issue involves the adequacy of existing regulations (such as trichloroethylene (TCE)) and EPA's pace in reviewing and potentially revising older standards. Congress last reauthorized SDWA in 1996. Although funding authority for most SDWA programs expired in FY2003, Congress continues to appropriate funds annually for these programs. No broad reauthorization bills have been proposed, as EPA, states, and water systems continue efforts to implement current statutory programs and regulatory requirements. A long-standing and overarching SDWA issue concerns the cumulative cost and complexity of drinking water standards and the ability of water systems, especially small systems, to comply with standards. The issue of the affordability of drinking water regulations, such as those for arsenic, radium, and disinfection by-products, has merged with the larger debate over what is the appropriate federal role in assisting communities with financing drinking water projects needed for SDWA compliance, and for water infrastructure improvement generally.

Water infrastructure financing legislation has been offered repeatedly in recent Congresses to authorize higher funding levels for the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) program, and also to provide grants and other compliance assistance to small communities. In the 111th Congress, this issue found early focus in the economic stimulus debate, and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA; P.L. 111-5) included $2 billion for the DWSRF program. The Omnibus Appropriations Act, 2009, provided $829 million for this program, and the Department of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2010 (P.L. 111-88), included an additional $1.387 billion. Two bills to revise and reauthorize the DWSRF have been approved by committee: S. 1005 (which also would revise the clean water SRF) and H.R. 5320. In contrast, H.R. 3202 would establish a water infrastructure trust fund supported by specified product and corporate taxes rather than appropriations.

A newer SDWA issue concerns proposals and research regarding the underground injection of carbon dioxide (CO2) for long-term storage as a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. EPA has proposed regulations under SDWA to provide a national permitting framework for managing the underground injection of CO2 for commercial-scale sequestration projects. In August 2009, EPA published a notice of data availability and requested additional comment on the proposed rule. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA; P.L. 110-140) included carbon sequestration research and development provisions, and specified that geologic sequestration activities shall be subject to SDWA provisions related to protecting underground drinking water sources. Another underground injection issue concerns the increasing use of hydraulic fracturing to produce natural gas from unconventional geologic formations. Two bills (H.R. 2766 and S. 1215), referred to as the FRAC Act, have been introduced to explicitly authorize regulation of this practice under the SDWA underground injection control program.

Date of Report: June 10, 2010
Number of Pages: 29
Order Number: RL34201
Price: $29.95

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