Safe Drinking Water Act

The Safe Drinking Water Act (the “SDWA”) was put into effect in order to protect the quality of drinking water for people living in the United States. The Act comes from the Environmental Protection Agency’s responsibility to set safe drinking water standards for all states and water supplies. As a result, the Safe Drinking Water Act applies to every one of the more than 160,000 public water systems that provide water to nearly every American. To explore this concept, consider the following Safe Drinking Water Act definition.

Definition of Safe Drinking Water


  1. Water used for drinking, cooking, and personal hygiene, which meets governmental microbial and chemical standards for drinking water quality

Overview of the Safe Drinking Water Act

The SDWA focuses on water mainly used for drinking, cooking, personal hygiene purposes. This includes both above and below ground water sources that serve the public, though not to private wells or private water systems. The Act gives the EPA the authority to establish standards pertaining to tap water, and does not pertain to bottled water, as this is regulated by the FDA. These regulations require public water system owners to comply with health-related standards.

Primary Regulations

The SDWA has many rules and regulations in place to ensure healthy drinking water for Americans. It requires the EPA to establish the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations for contaminants that may adversely affect public health. Federal drinking water standards are classified into six different groups:

  1. Microorganisms – Allowable levels of specific bacterial, viral, and fungal organisms
  2. Organic Chemicals – Allowable levels of 53 chemical compounds that have organic origins. These include many pesticides and manufacturing chemical compounds.
  3. Inorganic Chemicals – Allowable levels of inorganic chemicals, including such chemicals as arsenic, cyanide, copper, fluoride, lead, mercury, and selenium.
  4. Disinfectants – Allowable levels of chlorine, chloramines, and other disinfecting agents.
  5. Disinfection Byproducts – Allowable levels of substances that are created during the reaction of a disinfectant with organic substances. These include bromated, haloacetic acids, chlorite, and trihalomethanes.
  6. Radionuclides – Allowable levels of unstable chemical elements that radioactively decay, emitting nuclear radiation.

Each of these standards has limits and maximum allowances. For example, Pipes carrying water cannot contain more than 8 percent lead. The standards specifically list and define what is and what is not considered a contaminant.

History of the Safe Drinking Water Act

Prior to the establishment of the SDWA, there were very few enforceable conditions when it came to providing drinking water to the public. As technology began advancing however, improved testing made detection of harmful substances possible, and many states began adopting water regulations.

In 1974, Congress was forced to take action as more and more contaminants were being discovered in the public water supply. This led to the Safe Drinking Water Act being officially put into place on December 17, 1974. In 1986, a number of amendments were made to the Act. These included:

  • Monitoring for specified harmful substances
  • Filtering of surface water systems
  • Disinfecting groundwater systems
  • Restricting the amount of lead in plumbing pipes and solder

In 1996, more amendments were made by Congress, resulting in the following:

  1. The Drinking Water State Revolving Fund was set up to aid states with improving water systems
  2. Requirement of EPA to strengthen microbial contaminant protection, as well as byproducts of chemical disinfection
  3. Certification for water system operators to ensure systems are operated safely
  4. Distribution of consumer information about where their drinking water comes from and how it is treated

Monitoring and Enforcement

The Act requires that public water systems be monitored on a regular basis. This includes checking for contaminants and analyzing water samples using EPA-approved methods and devices. It also requires certain samples to be sent to a state agency or lab certified by the EPA for evaluation.

Provisions of the Act require a written Consumer Confidence Report to be provided to consumers being served by public water systems. Such a report details the contaminants in the water, and the possible health impacts associated with them. State agencies or regional offices of the EPA manage the water systems which are required to report periodically. If the agencies fail to report, they are subjected to fines, and are forced to comply with formal orders.

Private Wells

Though the EPA does not regulate private drinking water wells, it does provide information to Americans who rely on them for their primary source of potable water. Since over 15 percent of Americans rely on private wells or water supplies not subjected to federal EPA standards, state and local governments have the power to set rules to protect and inform consumers. Such rules and regulations vary by jurisdiction, but often include:

  • Basic information such as guidelines for proper construction
  • Information about private wells in the region
  • Information about the risks associated with drinking well water
  • Testing for water quality of well water
  • Partnering with citizens and organizations to keep well water safe

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Authority – The right or power to make decisions, give orders, or to control something or someone.
  • Contaminant – A physical, chemical, biological, or radiological substance that adversely affects living organisms.
  • United States Environmental Protection Agency – A federal agency charged with protecting human health and the environment.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.