Getting the Truth about Safe Drinking Water

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is reviewing the Consumer Confidence Report (CCR) rule, a policy mandating that public water systems provide annual reports to consumers on the quality of local drinking water. The resulting reports have been criticized for being overly technical, complex, and difficult for the general public to understand or act upon.

The CCR rule is a landmark policy meant to inform Americans about possible risks to their water supply so that they can be empowered to demand safe drinking water. EPA's review is an opportunity to reform the rule so that it can better realize its reason for being.

The Impetus

The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 (SDWA) requires public water systems to notify their customers of violations of federal drinking water standards. However, a 1992 General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office) study found that only 11 percent of public water facilities with violations actually did so. And, while consumers had to be notified of violations, the law contained no requirement to disclose the general performance of the water system.

A 1993 incident where more than 400,000 people were sickened and more than 100 died due to contamination in Milwaukee's public water supply prompted Congress to amend the SDWA in 1996. Among the most significant changes were revisions to the public notice requirements. Congress added more stringent requirements to rapidly notify the public of violations and established the mandate to produce annual Consumer Confidence Reports, in which public water companies must detail the overall performance and quality of a given water system. In 1998, EPA issued the standards required to implement the law.

About Consumer Confidence Reports

Consumer Confidence Reports describe a system's water sources, risks to the water system, contaminants detected in the water supply that violate EPA's health standards, and the potential effects of any violations. The reports also list other violations that occurred in the past year and provide educational information about water contaminants.

Water companies prepare the reports annually and typically deliver them by mail, stuffing them into customers’ water bills. Water companies are required to make good-faith efforts to notify consumers who do not directly receive water bills, such as apartment tenants and workers in an office building. Large water systems are required to post their report online, as well.

However, a 2003 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council surveyed 19 cities and found several problems with the reports, including misleading claims and omitted information. A 2007 book by professors Archon Fung, Mary Graham, and David Weil called the rule "a missed opportunity with serious consequences," saying it "impairs public health" and "undermines one of democracy's central tenets – that citizens can trust their government as a source of reliable, timely information."

Instead of Making the Report More Customer Friendly, Industry Wants the CCR Rule Removed

In January 2011, President Obama issued an executive order, "Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review," that tasked every federal agency with conducting a "retrospective analysis of rules that may be outmoded, ineffective, insufficient, or excessively burdensome, and to modify, streamline, expand, or repeal them in accordance with what has been learned."

EPA solicited input on which of its rules to review and received several comments from water systems criticizing the administrative requirements of the CCR rule. In August 2011, EPA included the CCR rule in the 35 rules it prioritized for review, saying it would "look for opportunities to improve the effectiveness of communicating drinking water information to the public, while lowering the burden on water systems and states."

EPA held a public meeting on February 23 to discuss the rule and is hosting an online conversation about the rule through March 9. The agency has asked for feedback on how to make the reports clearer.

Moving Forward on the CCR Rule

OMB Watch believes EPA should begin by investigating whether the reports currently produced actually communicate effectively to citizens. How many consumers receive the reports? When? In what form? How many read the reports? How accurate, complete, and comprehensible are the reports? Many of these questions could be answered with a survey of consumers around the country.

After identifying the barriers to understanding, EPA should set standards for the content and format of the reports. For instance, the agency could develop indicators and overview graphs on water quality. Other government information programs use simple and straightforward indicators that facilitate faster understanding of complex technical information, such as color-coded air quality warnings, energy usage labels for appliances, and mileage ratings for cars. Similarly, EPA needs to develop a water quality indicator that is easy for the general public to understand.

To achieve such reforms, EPA may need to revise the rule and update the report templates that water systems use. It should also assess compliance with the rule and consider ways to ensure water companies are consistently delivering accurate and comprehensible information. Finally, EPA should raise public awareness about the reports to help consumers understand why this information is important to them.

Please Weigh In

You can contribute your views by participating in the online discussion before March 9. Users must register for a free IdeaScale account to view the discussion.

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