Proposed Ground Water Rule: Questions and Answers

Proposed Ground Water Rule:  
Questions and Answers

1. What is the action today?

EPA is proposing to further protect America’s drinking water by requiring, for the first time, action to protect ground water sources of public drinking water supplies from disease-causing viruses and bacteria, such as E. coli.  The proposal will protect 109 million Americans, and prevent over 115,000 cases of illness and as many as 10 deaths per year. This rule will require identification of defects in water systems that could lead to contamination and identification of sources of drinking water that are at risk of being contaminated.  The rule requires monitoring for systems with sources at risk, and actions to remove or inactivate contaminants, if found, to prevent them from reaching drinking water consumers.

2. How is this rule related to recent Clinton/Gore Administration drinking water announcements?

Since most Americans drink from public water systems at some point, whether in their home, at school, or at a restaurant, these three rules together will protect almost all Americans from waterborne diseases.  In December 1998, President Clinton announced a major rule to control Cryptosporidium in large drinking water systems (those serving at least 10,000 people each).  In March, 2000, Vice President Gore announced a new rule that extended those protections to persons served by small water systems (those serving fewer than 10,000 people).  Today's rule proposes the first ever requirements that water systems which use ground water also protect against disease-causing microbial contaminants, including viruses and bacteria.

3. Why is EPA proposing this rule?

EPA’s Science Advisory Board concluded in 1990 that exposure to microbial contaminants such as bacteria, viruses, and protozoa (e.g., Giardia lamblia and Cryptosporidium) was likely the greatest remaining health risk management challenge for drinking water suppliers.  Illness can result from exposure to microbial pathogens ranging from mild to moderate cases lasting only a few days to more severe infections that can last several weeks and may result in death for those with weakened immune systems

Although ground water has historically been considered free of contamination, Center for Disease Control data shows that 318 waterborne disease outbreaks associated with ground water systems occurred between 1971 and 1996.   Eighty-six percent of these outbreaks were associated with contaminated source waters, and half of those outbreaks occurred in systems that were already using some kind of disinfection.  This data indicated a need to strengthen monitoring, prevention, inactivation and removal of contaminants from ground water systems. 

4. Does today's rule protect ground water systems from Cryptosporidium and Giardia?

No, because disease-causing microbes such as Cryptosporidium and Giardia are not found in ground water.  They only occur in surface water, and ground water under the direct influence of surface water, and are covered by the two previous regulations announced by President Clinton and Vice President Gore.  This proposed rule will protect against E. coli, a microscopic bacteria found in animal wastes.

5. What causes contamination of ground water?

Viral and bacterial pathogens are present in human and animal feces, which can, in turn, contaminate drinking water.  Fecal contamination can reach ground water sources, including drinking water wells,  from failed septic systems, leaking sewer lines, and by passing through the soil and large cracks in the ground.  Fecal contamination from the surface may also get into a drinking water well along its casing or through cracks if the well is not properly constructed, protected, or maintained.  Fecal contamination may also enter the distribution system, such as pipes.

6. How many water systems are affected? 

The proposed ground water rule will apply to all 157,000 U.S. public water systems that use ground water as a source.  Most of these are small systems.  This includes water systems which serve the same populations year-round, such as houses and apartment buildings, as well as systems that provide drinking water only parts of the year, such as schools or campgrounds. 

7. How much will this cost?

The average cost for 90 percent of U.S. households served by public ground water systems is expected to be less than $5.00 per year.

8. How will drinking water systems pay for the new requirements?

Under the Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1996, President Clinton called for and Congress approved the first-ever loan program to help states and communities finance the costs of improving drinking water treatment facilities.  To date, $3.6 billion has been appropriated to ensure that local drinking water systems have the resources to protect America’s drinking water. President Clinton requested $825 million for FY 2001 for this loan fund.

9.  What is EPA doing to assist small systems?

Each year, 15 percent of the drinking water loans must be used to provide infrastructure loans to small systems.  These loans will help pay for new requirements under the new rule such as fixing defects in systems or adding disinfection.  

EPA has developed a variety of free materials for small system operators to inform them about new drinking water regulations, best available technologies to meet new requirements, and funding available to them.  EPA posts information on its drinking water web site at http://www.epa.gov/safewater/.  EPA also provides assistance through the Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 1-877-EPA -WATER.

10. How does the Safe Drinking Water Act protect Americans?
  
Enacted in 1974, the Safe Drinking Water Act is the primary national law to protect our public drinking water supplies.  It establishes public health standards for contaminants found in drinking water.  In 1996, President Clinton requested and Congress enacted the amendments to the Act to strengthen and expand the nation’s drinking water protections in four major areas: First, the new Act gives all Americans the right to know what contaminants are in their drinking water.  Second, it strengthens standards to protect public health from the most significant threats to safe drinking water.  Third, it provides first-ever money through a loan program for communities to upgrade drinking water systems.  And fourth, it provides unprecedented protection for the sources of our drinking water, like rivers and lakes, to prevent contamination of the nation’s drinking water.

11. Is my water safe?

More than 90 percent of the people served by community water systems receive tap water that meets tough federal health standards.  Since 1993, 22.5 million more Americans are receiving water from utilities reporting no violations of federal health standards.  But, due to new and emerging threats, we must remain vigilant in protecting the nation’s drinking water.