The recent extreme weather in Texas shed new light on underlying problems with the state’s infrastructure. Throughout the crisis, the availability of drinkable water reached hazardously low levels across the state, while power outages disrupted water treatment in some counties.
As it turns out, the state of Texas has a poor record for water quality, with many studies finding that a number of Texas utilities are supplying drinking water contaminated by high levels of radiation, lead and arsenic. Even though Texas requires public water systems to protect drinking water in accordance with the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), the state accounted for nearly 10 percent of SDWA violations in 2020.
Regulating Water in 2020
As the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home orders raged on in 2020, the water treatment industry was deemed essential, with importance placed on the mitigation of contaminants and lead remediation. Throughout the year, more than 200 pieces of legislation dealing with drinking water were proposed at the state and federal levels, nearly 40 percent of which covered unregulated contaminants, including PFAS, microplastics and legionella.
At the state level, the main focus of legislative activity was on enforcement of maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) at their public water systems. A significant proportion of that legislation also targeted lead levels in drinking water.
How Water Is Regulated
When it comes to federal clean water and safe drinking water laws, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the enforcer. The EPA also provides support for municipal wastewater treatment plants and contributes to pollution prevention efforts for the protection of watersheds and drinking water sources.
The SDWA, originally passed in 1974, is the main federal law regulating the U.S. drinking water supply. It authorizes the EPA to establish minimum standards for protecting tap water. The EPA sets the legal limits for more than 90 drinking water contaminants and water testing schedules and methods for water systems. Legal contaminant levels are set based on a level that protects human health — and that a water system is able to achieve with the best available technology. (At the state level, the SDWA allows them to set their own drinking water standards, as long as those standards are as exacting as those of the EPA.)
Activity at the EPA
The EPA is moving many initiatives forward, which are sure to continue this year:
A proposed update to the EPA’s new Lead and Copper Rule is designed to protect children and communities from the risks of lead exposure.
The EPA continues to move the PFAS Action Plan forward, continuing to “use enforcement tools, when appropriate, to address PFAS exposure in the environment and assist states in enforcement activities” and addressing PFAS in wastewater.
The EPA calls the PFAS Action Plan “the most comprehensive cross-agency plan for addressing an emerging chemical of concern.” In January, the agency announced a suite of actions designed to advance the plan, including final determinations to regulate PFOS and PFOA in drinking water and a proposal to require monitoring for 29 PFAS in drinking water under the fifth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR 5).
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