How is water used?

Water is a shared resource that knows no political boundaries.  We need it to wash, clean and power our modern lifestyles. Clean freshwater is important not only to the population but also American agriculture, industries, aquaculture, mining, and energy production.  More often than not, we take it for granted.  For most of us, we turn the taps and out water flows.

Source: USGS

Americans use about 300,000 million gallons of freshwater water per day from both surface and ground sources. Public drinking water comprises only 13% of that or 42,000 million gallons per day.

If it isn’t for drinking water, what is the majority of the freshwater used for? The two largest uses for freshwater in the US is for irrigation and cooling of electric power plants. Combined, they account for about three-quarters of the fresh water used in the US. Industrial use of water makes up 5% of the country’s water use.

The Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act are the foundation of our country’s water quality. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for implementing and enforcing these Acts.

What is assessed when monitoring water quality?

Monitoring and enforcing water quality go hand in hand. States collect five types of data are collected from monitoring sites: biological, chemical, physical, habitat, and toxicity.

Biological – Measurements of aquatic biological communities (aquatic insects, fish, or algae)

Chemical –  Measurements of key chemical constituents in water, sediments, and fish tissue. Examples of measurements include metals, oils, pesticides, and nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus.

Physical – Temperature, flow, dissolved oxygen, and pH.

Habitat – Descriptions of sites and surrounding land uses; condition of streamside vegetation; and measurement of features such as stream width, depth, flow, and substrate.

Toxicity – Toxicity data are generated by exposing selected organisms such as fathead minnows or daphnia (“water fleas”) to known dilutions of water taken from the sampling location.

What is the Clean Water Act?

The Clean Water Act (CWA) serves as the legal basis for quality water in the United States. Passed in 1972, the Act mandates the EPA to regulate the discharge of pollution into bodies of water and the quality standards for surface waters. The EPA defines what and how much industrial and agricultural effluents can enter lakes, streams, and rivers.

Those who seek to discharge pollutants into a navigable body of water must obtain a permit under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). Under this system, the EPA provides guidance on technology-based limits and water quality-based limits. Additional monitoring and reporting requirements are defined for specific discharges: animal feeding operations, aquaculture, wastewater, stormwater, etc.

What is the Safe Drinking Water Act?

In 1974, Congress established the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) to set standards for drinking water quality. The Act requires EPA to oversee and enforce compliance with those who are responsible for the day-to-day operation of the US’s various water systems.

The EPA defines maximum contaminant concentrations for over 90 different contaminants in public drinking water under the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWR). The agency also specifies treatment technique specific to each contaminant.

How are the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act implemented?

The Office of Water, under the EPA, implements both the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, as well as several statutes including the Coastal Zone Act Reauthorization Amendments of 1990. Their mandate is to protect human health, support economic and recreational activities, and provide healthy habitat for fish, plants, and wildlife. The office oversees the management of water in oceans, watersheds, and aquatic ecosystems.

The budget for implementing water policies are spread across several program areas. While the government continued to increase funding to these programs in past years, complete or partial cuts are seen across the board under the current US Administration. These areas include ecosystems, human health protection, and water quality protection. The geographic programs, which are aimed to remediate and restore bodies of water, are completely cut from the EPA’s budget, eliminating over $420 million in funding.

FY 2016 Actual2017 Annualized CRFY 2017 Presidential Budget
Water: Ecosystems
National Estuary Program / Coastal Waterways$25,862.30$26,672.00$0.00
Subtotal, Water: Ecosystems$46,927.80$47,697.00$18,115.00
Water: Human Health Protection
Beach / Fish Programs$1,779.80$1,978.00$0.00
Drinking Water Programs$96,372.20$96,341.00$80,044.00
Subtotal, Water: Human Health Protection$98,152.00$98,319.00$80,044.00
Water Quality Protection
Marine Pollution$10,757.80$10,142.00$0.00
Surface Water Protection$202,080.50$199,875.00$174,975.00
Subtotal, Water Quality Protection$212,838.30$210,017.00$174,975.00

EPA budget (continuing resolution and presidential) for water-related projects by program area, Thousands of Dollars (Source: EPA)

How does enforcement work?

The effectiveness of EPA’s efforts to uphold its regulations depends on the agency’s ability to enforce its policies. The agency’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA) goes after both water and air quality violations through civil and criminal enforcement. To ensure compliance with the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA works with federal, state, and tribal agencies through the Compliance and Monitoring Assistance programs.

The EPA’s budget for enforcement is expected to fall by a fifth under the current president’s budget plans.

FY 2016 Actual2017 Annualized CRFY 2017 Presidential Budget
Civil Enforcement$174,120.90$171,051.00$140,470.00
Criminal Enforcement$47,844.70$46,225.00$40,341.00
Environmental Justice$7,347.60$6,724.00$0.00
NEPA Implementation$15,761.30$16,179.00$13,496.00
Subtotal, Enforcement$245,074.50$240,179.00$194,307.00

EPA budget (continuing resolution and presidential) for enforcement programs, Thousands of Dollars (Source: EPA)

How many known contaminants are there?

The EPA estimates there are more than 80,000 chemical compounds in commercial use, much more than those listed in the NPDWR. Only a few thousand have been studied for detection and toxicity. Under the SDWA, the EPA has a process to identify and consider unregulated contaminants. The EPA periodically publishes a list of contaminants (called the Contaminant Candidate List or CCL). Through evaluation, the contaminants are considered for inclusion into the list of chemicals in the NPDWR.

If water tastes funny, is it unsafe to drink?

Drinking water may not always taste or smell fresh. It may even be a little cloudy or colored. This does not necessarily mean the water is undrinkable. For example, aluminum contamination imparts color to the water.  Metals like copper and zinc make the water taste metallic. However undesirable tastes, odors, and appearances erodes the public’s trust in the community water supply. The EPA has therefore established additional criteria for water quality.

To help distinguish contaminants that lower the drinking experience from those that pose safety risks, the EPA has also established non-mandatory water quality standards for 15 contaminants specifies. These are the National Secondary Drinking Water Regulations (NSDWRs) and they provide guidelines for public water systems to manage water quality in terms of taste, color, and odor.

Can contamination come elsewhere besides the source?

Yes. The distribution infrastructure can result in contamination, especially if it is poorly managed. In addition to the SDWA, the EPA adopted the Lead and Copper Rule, which requires every state to comply with standards to manage lead and copper that leach from the pipeline. The utilities monitor water lead levels by testing the water in homes that are connected to water mains using lead service lines.