The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA)

Basic Information

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was originally passed by Congress in 1974 to protect public health by regulating the nation's public drinking water supply. The law was amended in 1986 and 1996 and requires many actions to protect drinking water and its sources: rivers, lakes, reservoirs, springs, and ground water wells.

Millions of Americans receive high quality drinking water every day from their public water systems, (which may be publicly or privately owned). Nonetheless, drinking water safety cannot be taken for granted. There are a number of threats to drinking water: improperly disposed of chemicals; animal wastes; pesticides; human wastes; wastes injected deep underground; and naturally-occurring substances can all contaminate drinking water. Likewise, drinking water that is not properly treated or disinfected, or which travels through an improperly maintained distribution system, may also pose a health risk.

Competent operating personnel are vitally important to the sustained, safe operation of small water systems. Accordingly, good operator training is as essential to improving small water systems as are improved technologies, organizational fixes, or regulatory oversight. Without adequately trained personnel, even a well-financed and organized system with the most advanced technology and regular compliance visits will fail to reliably deliver safe drinking water to its customers.

Unfortunately, the training available to most small system operators falls far short of meeting their needs. This training deficit became especially evident in the early 1990s, when violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) began accumulating in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) Federal Reporting Data System. Between 1989 and 1994, the number of community water systems violating the SDWA increased by a third, from 12,295 to 16,779, and the number of violations they incurred more than doubled, from just over 40,000 to over 88,000.

The mounting number of violations made it clear that many small system operators found it difficult to comply with the increasingly complex regulations introduced by the 1986 SDWA amendments. Congress and others involved in passage of the SDWA and its 1986 amendments had assumed that operators either had or would easily acquire (presumably from existing state programs) the skills necessary to comply with the expanding regulatory requirements they faced. However, most small system operators come to their positions through circuitous routes, with relatively little formal training.
The federal guidelines published on February 5, 1999 provide States with the minimum standards for the development, implementation and enforcement of operator certification programs for community and nontransient noncommunity public water systems.

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