Safe Drinking Water Act

Progress and Future Challenges in Implementing the 1996 Amendments Gao ID: RCED-99-31 January 14, 1999

The Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1996 sought to address many long-standing problems impeding the nation's primary drinking water protection program. The amendments (1) required that new contaminant limitations be based on the risk to human health and on sound science and that the cost of compliance be taken into account, (2) placed greater emphasis on pollution prevention by requiring that all sources of drinking water for public water systems be assessed for their susceptibility to contamination, (3) added requirements to help ensure that customers are fully informed about the quality of their drinking water, (4) addressed problems associated with thousands of "nonviable" small water systems that have often had difficulty ensuring the safety of their water, (5) established a program to help water systems finance infrastructure improvements, and (6) authorized additional resources to help the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the states implement the drinking water program. This report provides information on each of these key changes. GAO discusses the status of efforts and progress made by EPA and the states to address them and the future challenges facing EPA and the states in their efforts to do so.

GAO noted that: (1) EPA and the states have made progress in meeting the initial requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1996; (2) EPA has met all of its statutory requirements to develop regulations and guidelines; (3) the states have made important strides in setting up their drinking water revolving funds and are working to meet other initial requirements to prepare needed strategies and programs; (4) yet, the most difficult challenge deals with the longer-term question of implementation-- implementation of the new contaminant standards (including monitoring water systems' compliance with the standards), the provisions to ensure the viability of thousands of smaller water systems, and the numerous other requirements associated with this complex statute; (5) meeting these longer-term challenges will call for a sustained effort by EPA, the states, and the nation's public water systems and will warrant continuous oversight by Congress; (6) EPA is working to meet the amendments' requirements to complete many contaminant standards that were in process at the time of reauthorization, including standards for arsenic and radon; (7) the states are presently working to develop statewide source water assessment programs that identify sources of public drinking water and show how a state will determine the vulnerability of the sources to contamination; (8) EPA issued regulations on August 19, 1998, that call on public water systems to issue annual consumer confidence reports; (9) the states have made progress in implementing the capacity development requirements for new systems and in reporting on existing systems with a history of noncompliance; (10) both EPA and the states have made progress in launching the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund program; (11) the 1996 amendments took important steps to address serious resource shortages affecting EPA's and the states' capacity to meet basic program needs--steps that EPA and state officials agree have helped to put the program on a sounder footing; (12) the statute substantially increased the state program grants and provided the states with access to money from the revolving fund for program administration; and (13) the net effect of these changes on their capacity to implement the drinking water program has yet to be determined.

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