By Peter Chawaga
At a time of drastic political change, one thing seems unhappily consistent. The country’s drinking water keeps running into problems.
And the two have seemed to go hand-in-hand at times. On the campaign trail, President Trump was never shy to point out failures in drinking water safety, whether it was when he visited Flint, MI, to lament issues with lead contamination, or when he promised to address the country’s failing infrastructure, which consistently causes water system problems.
In what either amounts to a sign that things must now change, a mere payment of lip-service to the country’s concerns, or something in between, the U.S. EPA released a “national call to action” imploring regulators and utilities to redouble their efforts to improve the safety of drinking water.
“While American’s drinking water remains among the safest in the world, the drinking water sector faces a growing array of challenges that, if left unaddressed, can pose serious risks to public health and local economies,” an EPA spokesperson said. “This plan is a national call of action … to reinvigorate the safe drinking water enterprise and make investments that will impart healthy, thriving communities nationwide.”
The plan consists of six priorities and explanations of what can be done to address each, things like improving training programs for system operators and sharing best practices online, enhancing community resilience to extreme weather events, and promoting the development of low cost innovations for removing a broad range of contaminants.
“The EPA believes that each of the actions presented in the plan offers compelling opportunities for government and stakeholders to work together on creative and pragmatic new approaches,” the spokesperson said. “Leveraging information to empower consumers and promote robust accountability, promoting equity in infrastructure financing and management, creating new partnerships to protect drinking water sources and promote regional cooperation to solve drinking water challenges, and driving new technologies to better protect public health.”
For the most part, these priorities and remediation methods were developed through conversation with local stakeholders.
“The EPA conducted extensive outreach to a diverse group of stakeholder groups to gather input on addressing our nation’s drinking water challenges,” said the spokesperson. “Through a variety of forums, the EPA requested input from state, tribal, and local governments; drinking water utilities; and public health, environmental, and community justice organizations.”
In addition to these efforts to gather input from regional sources, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology studied drinking water safety and made recommendations to complement the EPA’s plans.
It’s reasonable to conclude that this call to action was directed specifically at President Trump as he assumed control of the White House. For its part, the EPA seemed to indicate as much without being overly specific.
“This plan reflects extensive stakeholder input on the drinking water program and will serve as a useful document for framing discussion on the path forward to ensure that the national drinking water program will continue to meet the public health protection needs of the American public,” said the spokesperson in response to a question about the plan’s efficacy under different politicians and parties.
Regardless of who is in office, however, this is a crucial time to focus on making drinking water more safe.
“This is a moment of tremendous opportunity for innovation and progress in health protection, thanks to advances in drinking water treatment and monitoring technology; new approaches to information management, communications, and water infrastructure finance; emerging partnerships spanning government, utilities, and the public; and lessons learned in over 40 years of implementing the SDWA.”
With the table set to make true strides in improving drinking water safety, only time will tell if President Trump takes advantage of the moment. In a curious and perhaps foreboding move, however, all EPA activities were essentially shut down until further notice as one of the new administration’s first orders of business. As activities resume, we will see if the EPA’s pressing “call to action” is heeded or goes unanswered. One thing is for sure: we can’t wait much longer.