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Friday, February 4, 2011

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, 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 the lead rule) and EPA’s pace in reviewing and potentially revising older standards (such as the chromium standard).

Congress last reauthorized SDWA in 1996. Although funding authority for most SDWA programs expired in FY2003, Congress continues to appropriate funds annually for these ongoing programs, while EPA, states, and water systems continue efforts to meet current statutory requirements. The 111
th Congress made one amendment to SDWA, P.L. 111-380, which reduces the amount of lead allowed in water pipes and plumbing fittings and fixtures.

An 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 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 improvements 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/or to provide grants and other compliance assistance to small communities. In the 111
th Congress, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (P.L. 111-5) included $2 billion for the DWSRF program, and the EPA appropriations act for FY2011 (P.L. 111-88) included another $1.387 billion. Two bills to revise and reauthorize the DWSRF received action: Housepassed H.R. 5320 and Senate-reported S. 1005. Taking an alternative financing approach, H.R. 3202 proposed to create a water infrastructure trust fund supported by fees and taxes.

The SDWA also mandates regulation of underground injection activities to protect drinking water sources. An issue in this area concerns the underground injection of carbon dioxide (CO
2) for long-term storage as a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (P.L. 110-140) specified that sequestration activities shall be subject to SDWA underground injection control provisions. In 2010, EPA issued a SDWA rule to provide a national permitting framework for managing the underground injection of CO2 for commercialscale sequestration projects. Another underground injection issue concerns the growing reliance on hydraulic fracturing to produce natural gas and oil from unconventional geologic formations. Two bills (H.R. 2766 and S. 1215, the FRAC Act) were introduced to authorize EPA regulation of this practice under the SDWA underground injection control program; in contrast, H.R. 2300 expressed opposition to federal regulation of gas and oil production wells under SDWA.

Date of Report: January 24, 2011
Number of Pages: 29
Order Number: RL34201
Price: $29.95

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