Remarks and Charge to Participants
Although frequently taken for granted, the reliable provision of safe drinking water in the United States and other developed countries represents one of the outstanding public health accomplishments of the past century. This capability derived from major and mutually reinforcing efforts by researchers in public health, by engineers, and by governments at all levels—municipal, state, and federal—to put the necessary infrastructure in place, develop standards and regulations, and implement them effectively. As a result, the vast majority of people in the United States today enjoy an unprecedented level of protection and safety in the drinking water they consume.
This is not to say the job is done, because as we look back on significant accomplishments—as well as take pride in a level of protection that continues to improve over time—we recognize that a series of significant challenges are looming, these include the following:
Nonpoint sources. It has become apparent that along with success in managing point sources of pollution through federal technology-based treatment requirements and implementation of permitting programs, we now face the fact that a greater proportion of the impairment to our surface and groundwaters stems from nonpoint sources.
Land-use and water quality issues are inextricably linked. As urbanization proceeded, historic patterns of development caused an increase in impervious surface area that altered the patterns of runoff and increased the pollutant loadings of watersheds. These circumstances have led to
enhanced interest in concepts with names such as “smart growth” and “sustainable resource management”—basically, an approach to developing urban and urbanizing areas in ways that minimize their effects on the environment in general and on receiving waters in particular.
Agricultural practices, meanwhile, have increasingly become a focus of attention at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other agencies. To some extent, we have brought certain agricultural operations—in particular, combined animal feeding operations (CAFOs)—under the umbrella of our point source regulatory management program. However, many other agricultural practices that constitute nonpoint sources remain relatively unregulated from the federal perspective. EPA is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has considerable resources in this area, to improve agricultural practices so as to minimize the nutrient loadings and the sediment and pesticide runoff that can result from agricultural operations.
Emerging contaminants. Recent studies by the U.S. Geological Survey have found that new contaminants and contaminant mixtures, such as pharmaceuticals, detergent metabolites, and natural and synthetic hormones, are appearing in our surface waters. To some degree, as our technology for detection and monitoring improves, we are finding things that perhaps have always been there, or have been there for a while, but are just now coming to our attention. In other cases, contaminants are emerging because of changes in land-use patterns, for example, or drug technology. We are only now beginning to focus attention on the significance of these findings, their implications for research, and the management issues they may ultimately pose for drinking water quality.
Aging infrastructure. There is growing concern about an imminent crisis regarding the physical infrastructure of our water supply and wastewater management systems. Various estimates identify enormous gaps between current levels of expenditure to replace and upgrade that infrastructure and the amount needed simply to address issues of growth, deterioration because of age and wear, and heightened environmental standards. Depending on the study, the necessary investments could total hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars.
Pathogens. High concentrations of humans and of farm animals, nonpoint source runoff, greater numbers of onsite septic systems resulting from suburban growth patterns, and preexisting combined sewer systems in older urban areas all continue to inject pathogens into our source waters and pose challenges to the safety of our drinking water. Multiple
tiers of protection are needed, involving source waters and drinking water alike.
Water quantity and quality. In some parts of the United States and certainly large parts of the world, the availability of safe water has become a fundamental concern. As systems become stressed in trying to provide adequate supplies of water, we will have to consider various measures for providing additional water—likely at great expense—as well as look very hard at opportunities for water conservation.
Governance. Watershed protection under the Clean Water Act must be integrated with source water protection under the Safe Drinking Water Act—not just at the federal level but at the state and local levels as well. EPA is trying to promote the development of appropriate models for comprehensive decision making among all jurisdictions that take into account the needs of source water protection and other water quality-related issues.
This workshop is an opportunity to hear the perspectives of knowledgeable and expert people on these and other drinking water challenges. We hope to gain some insights on where we need to invest in additional research, where existing research has not yet been fully exploited for addressing our water protection needs, where there are opportunities for EPA and other agencies to collaborate, and where barriers must be overcome for achieving our safe drinking water goals. We hope to garner from the discussion today some good ideas on how to move forward. In any case, we regard this event as part of an ongoing process and dialogue that we wish to have, working in part through the National Academies, with all of the stakeholders in the water protection area in order to chart the best possible course for the coming century.