News Feature | February 4, 2014

Did The Feds Trick States Into Regulating Tap Water?

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome


Tap water recently had an important anniversary.

That's according to James Salzman, author of the book Drinking Water: A History, who illuminated tap water's backstory and discussed the West Virginia chemical spill in a recent interview with NPR. 

"It's the 100th anniversary of the first public health service standards for drinking water," he explained.

Drinking water first became regulated in the U.S. in a sort of roundabout, tricky way, according to Salzman. The federal government did not want to legally require that states, towns, or municipalities treat their water, but they did want it to meet certain standards.

“So what they did is they required interstate common carriers, essentially trains, buses, ships, to have water that met these standards, which essentially meant chlorinated water," said Salzman.

As a result, cities discovered a need to treat their water in order to ensure vehicles would not avoid them. "The fact is the trains and the buses went through so many towns and cities that this was real impetus for those cities to actually add chlorination to their own drinking water supplies," he said. 

New Jersey led the way in treated tap water in 1908, when Jersey City became the very first city in the U.S. to chlorinate its drinking water. “Chlorine is what really changes things dramatically," Salzman said. 

A nascent bottled water market tanked as tap water became chlorinated. 

"What's interesting, from today's perspective, is that chlorination actually knocked the bottom out of the bottled water market," Salzman said.  "It was basically seen as healthier, better for you. And this newfangled chlorination essentially made water really safe to drink for the first time, in some respects, ever. And as a result, tap water became a newfangled thing, which is very ironic, considering the reputation today of bottled water versus tap water."

Salzman took an unexpected view on the West Virginia chemical spill: He saw it as a sign of how clean U.S. drinking water is. 

"The fact that this happens so infrequently actually I think is a testament to the quality of our drinking water. I mean, it's quite remarkable. I could go anywhere in the U.S. and have some tap water and not really give a second thought about its quality. I can't do that in most parts of the world," he said. 

But he added: "We have to remain vigilant. There are always sources of contamination that water providers have to be worried about - natural sources, microbes, pathogens, bacteria and such."

The idea that vigilance is a key has been a frequent observation after the spill, particularly from voices that favor more government oversight. "Officials say there wasn't much regulation at the site where the spill occurred and that little is known about the chemical that leaked," CNN reported

Fascinated by the history of tap water? The EPA provides a history, as well. And the agency looks way back. "Methods to improve the taste and odor of drinking water were recorded as early as 4000 B.C," it said.

The state of Alaska also provides a readable timeline. The most recent bullet is 1996, when the president signed the Safe Drinking Water Act Reauthorization.

For more about the government's influence on the water sector, check out Water Online's Regulations and Legislation Solution Center

Image credit: "River," © 2010 Moyan_Brenn, used under a Attribution 2.0 Generic license:

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