Proceedings of a Workshop
Quality Water from Every Tap
Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief
The quality of U.S. drinking water is at risk from many causes, including the nation’s aging infrastructure and environmental conditions that affect source water conditions. Quality Water from Every Tap, a workshop held in Washington, D.C., on November 21-22, 2019, provided an opportunity for experts from government, affected communities, academia, and the private sector to explore both the challenges and factors that affect the delivery of water with acceptable quality and the paths to increase the quality of water for systems that do not meet today’s drinking water standards—especially focusing on communities that lack adequate resources and expertise because they are small or have declining populations. The workshop was organized by a planning committee of the Environmental Health Matters Initiative (EHMI),1 a program of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to facilitate multisector, multidisciplinary exchanges around complex environmental heath challenges.
This Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief provides the rapporteurs’ high-level summary of the topics addressed in the workshop and suggestions provided by workshop participants for potential actions to address the nation’s water quality challenges. Additional details and ideas can be found in materials available online, including videos and input from a pre-workshop questionnaire.2 The reader is encouraged to use this document to gain insights into potential opportunities for action but should not view the ideas as consensus conclusions or recommendations of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
The EHMI chair, Thomas Burke (Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health), opened with an overview of the overarching EHMI activity. Given its focus on opportunities for action, the workshop’s structure was designed to highlight what individual participants believe are priorities for the field and elicit suggestions for concrete actions to advance these priorities.
The chair of the planning committee, Martha Rudolph (Colorado Department of Health and Environment, retired), set the stage for the workshop by describing the significant challenges facing communities around access to safe drinking water, highlighting the example of the drinking water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan. She noted that the factors affecting water quality include solid waste disposal and land management practices; harmful storm runoff; and pesticides and nutrients from agricultural runoff. Recent significant weather events have also had serious effects on U.S. drinking water sources and systems, such as the flooding from Hurricanes Sandy, Rita, and Katrina, which overwhelmed drinking water infrastructures.
Other climate-related changes stress drinking water sources and systems, Rudolph added. For example, the increase in the number, duration, and intensity of wildfires creates dangers to water facilities and water sources, as debris and harmful contamination are washed into the waters. Flooding after wildfires is also more intense and can contain harmful contaminants. Rudolph also noted that as sea levels rise, salt water intrusion becomes a greater risk to the nation’s water supply. Another threat is from water-borne diseases, which become more common as water temperatures rise with higher temperatures. And more intense drought conditions affect both the quantity and quality of the nation’s tap water.
Rudolph explained that the workshop was designed to focus on systems and communities with inadequate drinking water, on examining ways drinking water facilities can better prepare themselves for environmental changes and their effects, and on proposing solutions to the infrastructure needs faced by small communities and communities of declining populations. By understanding the water infrastructure challenges of these communities and possible solutions, the workshop discussion was expected to highlight actionable steps that communities and other actors can take to meet today’s and future water quality challenges.
THE QUALITY OF DRINKING WATER IN THE UNITED STATES TODAY
Role of the Safe Drinking Water Act
Alan Roberson (Association of State Drinking Water Administrators) described the central role of the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). The Act established national water quality standards that were to be implemented at the state level and devised a national network of public water systems. The SDWA defines a community water system as a water system that serves at least 15 connections, or 25 people, for at least 60 days of the year. Of the roughly 150,000 public water systems in the country, about 51,000 are classified as community water systems and they serve water year-round to over 286 million Americans (87% of the population). The vast majority of water from community water systems is delivered by publicly owned systems or governments (rather than privately owned systems). Many Americans not covered by community water systems access drinking water through private wells, presenting a water quality issue that is important but outside the scope of this workshop.
Roberson detailed how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets water quality standards for states to implement. The EPA determines which contaminants to regulate through a formal process. For the regulated contaminants EPA first determines a health-based maximum contaminant level goal (MCLG); then a primary maximum contaminant level (MCL) is established, which is an enforceable standard that is “as close to the MCLG as is feasible.” Surrogate indicators have been used in making these determinations (e.g., turbidity as an indicator of pathogen removal). There are currently 19 regulations that address 91 contaminants. The EPA can also establish treatment techniques in lieu of MCLs, particularly in cases for which there is no good analytical method for determining an MCL, and the agency has also implemented the concept of best available technology (BAT) to enhance compliance.
Roberson noted that the current SDWA regulatory process is constrained in its ability to address contaminants of potential health concern that are not yet subject to regulation. Only water systems that serve at least 10,000 people are required to monitor for unregulated contaminants as part of the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR).
Lack of Needed Information
Workshop speakers repeatedly discussed having insufficient data and information to know the full scope of the situation—with Kristi Pullen Fedinick (Natural Resources Defense Council) and Manuel Teodoro (Texas A&M University) noting that there is a substantial problem with water quality in the nation’s community water systems.
According to Marc LeChevellier (Dr. Water Consulting), there were 170,959 violations of the SDWA in the United States between June 1, 2016, and May 31, 2019, affecting nearly 40% of the U.S. population. Of these violations, 23,040 were health-based violations, affecting 5,634 community water systems used by nearly 45 million people. Looking more broadly, Roberson noted that 7-8% of public water systems serving more than 100,000 people have a record of health-based violations.
Importantly, however, the data on health violations may not be capturing the full scale of the problem because water systems may not be measuring some contaminants, and databases of these contaminants are woefully incomplete, explained Pullen Fedinick. For example, in her examination of lead violations, the data did not indicate that there was a problem in Flint during the height of that community’s lead crisis. This demonstrates the gap in how data regarding contaminants is collected and examined in the United States, she said.
The inability to fully assess the scope of the public health problem is compounded by the manner in which water quality research is conducted. “All water is intensely and intrinsically local,” stated Teodoro. Research on water quality, however, uses data aggregated at the state or county level. Analysis of local data is a slow, pain-staking process of matching multiple datasets in a geographic space. Pullen Fedinick added that although there can be multiple water systems within a single county, publicly accessible data concerning these systems are at the county level.
Attempts to measure the extent of water quality management problems are complicated by their unequal distribution across various public water systems and social strata. Teodoro described system size as the single biggest predictor of health-based violations. Pullen Fedinick noted that a larger number of monitoring and reporting violations occur in small systems than in big systems. Looking beyond system size, SDWA compliance also correlates with different social and organizational factors. For example, Teodoro explained, SDWA violations between 2010 and 2018 were also a function of such factors as ownership, source water (surface, ground, and wholesale or not), community demographics, socioeconomic indicators, and state administration.
System size is the single biggest predictor of health-based violations.
Similarly, in examining the distribution of drinking water violations across different communities around the country, Pullen Fedinick described how such violations are not uniformly distributed: “Where one lives can dictate the quality of one’s drinking water.” She noted that water violations are more common in lower-income and predominantly minority communities. She also described a statistically significant relationship between race and slow enforcement of the SDWA, with water systems in communities of color being more likely to have higher rates of violations and tending to be out of compliance longer, even when formal enforcement actions were taken. Teodoro added that the worst disparities were faced by tribal communities: in one study, SDWA health violations were found to be 2.5 times more frequent on tribal lands than anywhere else in the United States.
A Systems View
Approaching the problem of water quality from a systems perspective is critical to driving change, according to Kasey Faust (University of Texas at Austin). Through a systems view, she said, the interconnected nature of water quality problems can be more fully examined (see Box 1).
Faust also mentioned the importance of creating a system model with minimal complexity. Testing the model thoroughly to understand the logic of what is going on in the system, as well as adding complexity gradually, can be valuable. Bringing people with a wide range of expertise together is also critical, as they will have different perspectives, and she said it is essential to recognize one’s own bias in developing a systems view.
BOX 1 Taking a Systems View of the Challenge of Water Quality
Kasey Faust (University of Texas at Austin) explained that systems thinking allows one to see the whole picture, to understand large-scale dynamics and cascading effects. Through this approach, one can assess how a decision in one piece or part of the system affects other parts of the system.
The first step to taking this approach for water quality is to define the problem. This step can be complicated given the need to define both the components and their interdependencies within the system, as well as the boundaries of a particular problem. Important factors to consider—particularly regarding water systems—include personnel and capacity and the costs for their maintenance and operation.
The important first step to implementing a systems view is to create and verify a model of the system, determine whether it is representative of the real world, and make assumptions explicit. Once a model is created and verified, the next step is to test disruptors and leverage points: disrupters change the status quo; leverage points are locations in the system structure where the disrupter can be implemented. The figure below is a visual example of leverage points and disrupters in a water system.
KEY UNDERLYING FACTORS
Several experts shared their understanding of key underlying factors affecting water quality. Pullen Fedinick noted, for example, that Jim Crow laws created communities that are still not fully integrated. The underinvestment in largely poor communities and in communities of color, as well as a paucity of available resources for addressing aging water system infrastructure, are impediments to effective water management in areas that are the most vulnerable.
Megan Mullin (Duke University) underscored the significance of accountability and the complexity of U.S. water systems governance. Drinking water service in the United States is primarily a local government responsibility, with approximately 80% of Americans receiving their drinking water from local governments and municipal authorities. Thus, state and local spending on water infrastructure is an important factor and challenge, and the local context often plays a role in exacerbating inequalities in areas divided by differences in income and race.
The main types of local governments that provide water services are municipalities, counties, and special districts. In municipalities and counties, water systems are publicly owned, and accountability comes from local elections for city council members or county supervisors. In cities, competing priorities (e.g., public safety or education) and a lack of alignment between voting jurisdictions and water service areas can contribute to gaps in city and county water system management accountability. For special districts, the level and form of electoral accountability varies.
Elected or appointed officials in special districts may lack access to enforcement tools, authority over related services, or opportunities to connect local planning to water services. Mullin added that these limitations illustrate the issue of complex water systems oversight. Despite the weaker direct accountability in special districts, Teodoro noted that these districts tended
to perform better than municipalities, on the whole, in terms of compliance with water quality regulations. He also noted that private, investor-owned systems outperformed both special districts and municipalities in terms of water quality regulation compliance, reporting fewer violations than small- and medium-sized systems did.
Local-Level Management, Governance, and Finance Opportunities
An understanding of the governance, financial, and management approaches to delivering water is critical, said Jeff Oxenford (Rural Community Assistance Partnership [RCAP]). He provided an overview of these approaches and interventions at the local level, particularly as they relate to rural communities. RCAP works with rural communities, including tribal communities, and has seen the wide variation in water systems. Oxenford discussed workforce, financial, and governance challenges faced by small systems and described how RCAP has worked to address these issues.
Oxenford explained that workforce challenges are significant in small communities. Systems serving about 2,000 people, for example, only have two to four staff, while systems serving 500 people may only be staffed by one part-time person. When operators leave such systems, it is hard to find qualified replacements, thereby leaving a significant gap. Making the industry more attractive, improving pay for workers, and offering mentoring, apprenticeships, and support for individuals working in small water systems would help address some of the staffing challenges they face. He noted that training and technical assistance that addresses, for example, information technology needs, is also vitally needed in small water systems.
To address financial and governance challenges in smaller systems, Oxenford said, there is a need to approach these issues sustainably with solutions that take the long-term view. For financial challenges, there is a need to understand the value of water: he stressed that communities cannot grow without water or wastewater systems, and consumers are not now paying the true costs of having high-quality drinking water. Also, while water projects take time, the term of an elected official is relatively short. However, Oxenford notes, states are taking initiatives to require boards or elected officials to be trained on water systems, thereby working to help bridge this gap. Another approach includes encouraging regional collaboration among water systems, which can result in efficiencies.
Oxenford described a range of regional collaboration options, from informal cooperation to contractual assistance, joint powers agency, and ownership transfer, shown in Figure 1. Importantly, he noted, building these partnerships requires time and trust.
State and National Governance, Policy, and Finance Opportunities
At the state and national levels, the key issues concerning water quality are related to governance and specific policies, said Janice Beecher (Michigan State University). She argued for focusing attention on the implementation of existing, but underused policies that can protect communities. For example, the capacity development rules under the SDWA clearly indicate that water system and government authorities should ensure the capacity of new systems and work to develop effective strategies for existing systems. She called for this policy framework to be updated, implemented, and used more effectively by the states.
Beecher also discussed economies of scale (decreasing costs by increasing efficiencies) and the impulse towards privatization or consolidation. She said proposed methods to achieve economies of scale need careful consideration before implementation—consideration informed by reliable data and modeling, as well as empirical evaluation. Economies of scale are not the same as economies of consolidation or administrative consolidation of water system assets. She noted that opportunities to achieve structural scale are primarily relevant for small systems that are close to each other because the cost of distribution can offset the economies of scale associated with water production and treatment.
Economies of scale and the value and methods for achieving them need to be carefully considered.
— Janice Beecher
Technology, Information, and Information Analysis Opportunities
Bruce Dvorak (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) provided workshop participants with an overview of opportunities related to technological advances and the leveraging of current technology to address water quality issues. He highlighted the challenges associated with technological development and adoption in several areas.
Regarding water treatment at the point-of-use or source, new technologies are being developed. EPA has tested some technologies, such as coagulation and ion exchange, that are not being implemented as broadly as they could be. Other technologies are on a 3- to 15-year horizon: examples include hollow fiber membrane systems for trihalomethane removal, ferrate oxidation and disinfection methods, and electrodialysis with nanofiltration.
Dvorak next discussed several technologies related to infrastructure asset management and data collection. For infrastructure, there are dual distribution systems and trenchless pipe installation, as well as applications related to new subsurface pipe replacement methods. For data collection, smart meters (electronic devices that record water consumption data) and water quality monitoring technologies offering real-time controls are currently available. New technological and information systems hold the promise of reduced cost and complexity, along with the ability to address multiple contaminants and improve information collection and sharing.
Dvorak then turned to challenges and barriers that affect technology development. The financial capacity of communities to afford some of these technologies may be limited. Communities may also be averse to implementing new technologies: the technical capacity of local staff and operators may be limited, and there may be general wariness about new technologies. In addition, vendors have demonstrated a lack of interest in developing new technologies uniquely designed for smaller systems.
At the federal level, one barrier to technological innovation is that current EPA regulations do not support innovation. At the state level, there is a patchwork of state approvals necessary for adopting new technologies, and receiving approvals through the federal system is often a barrier for states. More generally, agencies may not consider new technologies for smaller systems, and staff at agencies may not have a sufficient background to evaluate new technologies. However, he noted, there is evidence that states are interested in sharing data and developing common standards for technology development, which could improve large scale innovation.
POTENTIAL ACTIONS TO ADDRESS CHALLENGES: DISCUSSION
Throughout the two-day workshop discussions, the various participants—representing industry, government, academia, and affected communities—offered numerous ideas for addressing key knowledge and data gaps, improving communication and engagement with communities, addressing governance and oversight challenges, strengthening technological development, and filling research gaps. Six kinds of potential actions are discussed in this section: knowledge and data; community engagement and communication; economies of scale; governance and oversight; strengthening existing water systems; and research and technology development. These elements are summarized in Table 1 at the end of the section.
Knowledge and Data
A common lament throughout the workshop was the lack of the knowledge needed to address data gaps around water quality in terms of contaminants in drinking water, gaps that are exacerbated in under-resourced communities. Roberson and Beecher reiterated these concerns, noting the water sector is hampered by a lack of valid and reliable data—data that are essential to understanding the magnitude of the problems and addressing them with appropriate policies. Potential key actions to help fill these gaps were discussed by several participants. First and foremost, it is critical to monitor water quality according to regulatory requirements, Pullen Fedinick stressed. She and others said enforcement is critical to ensure that needed data are collected; this point came up again in the discussion of governance and oversight.
Several participants also discussed the need to collect and make available water quality data at a sufficiently granular level to allow for identification and analysis of water quality and compliance issues, which are inherently local. Pullen Fedinick, Teodoro, and others emphasized throughout the workshop that the data currently publicly available and readily accessible are aggregated at the county or state level. There is no nationally unified dataset that has information on all community systems. Teodoro said it is important to get as local as possible, ideally at the level of individual customer data, to enable data to be analyzed in various ways to determine what is happening with water quality and SDWA compliance.
It is important to get as local as possible, ideally at the level of individual customer data, to enable data to be analyzed in various ways to determine what is happening with water quality and SDWA compliance. — Manual Teodoro
Roberson and other participants called for increased monitoring at point-of-use and other places in the water distribution system, beyond the treatment plant. He appreciates the fact that water is being monitored at the entry point of the distribution system, but “we need more in the system to better understand how it changes.” Monitoring data would inform overall knowledge of water quality and help decision making: one participant argued that having pervasive monitoring of water quality will transform understanding of water quality issues. Mae Wu (Natural Resources Defense Council) and Roberson also pointed out that point-of-use monitoring would further engage communities around drinking water quality and encourage consumers to take action at the local level. The development of low-cost water quality monitoring technologies was also discussed in terms of technology development.
George Hawkins (Moonshot Missions) and Faust, among others, also discussed monitoring water consumption with “smart” meters. Increased use of sensors can identify water loss and pipeline breaks, providing needed data on the condition of infrastructure. Smart meters are now in use, but there are challenges in terms of how to harness their data.
Finally, there was a discussion among participants about further capture of data on the source of water to communities by developing service maps. Remarkably, Mullin noted: “in the majority of states, we don’t know the service areas. We do not have maps to know which household, which business, is receiving water from which entity. . . . It is not an easy challenge.” One speaker’s photo of paper service maps collected in a bucket illustrated the issue. The development of digitized service maps could help fill these gaps. Chris Sturm (New Jersey Future) discussed the usefulness of New Jersey’s development of service maps. As a nonprofit organization, New Jersey Future plans to use service maps to make the government’s data about lead service lines more accessible.
In the majority of states, we don’t know the service areas. We do not have maps to know which household, which business, is receiving water from which entity . . . It is not an easy challenge.
— Megan Mullin
Community Engagement and Communication
Water quality is inherently a local issue, as stressed throughout the workshop, and as such, communities face significantly different water quality challenges. As noted in the workshop introduction, lower-income and racially diverse communities are disproportionately affected by water quality problems and water violations, along with slow enforcement of the SDWA. Yvonne Lewis (National Center for African American Health Consciousness), who has been involved in Flint water issues for years, brought her experience to the discussion. She emphasized how important it is to empower communities with data to build trust and support action. Arming communities with data about their water quality, including information about potential health violations, is critical to building a sense of trust in these communities.
Specifically, Lewis, along with others, described the need to create transparency around water quality violations. Communication tools, such as dashboards, can inform consumers about water quality and enable comparisons of their water system performance, providing the visible signals about water quality performance. Michelle Frederick (California Water Boards) and Sturm described how dashboards are being developed at the University of North Carolina and in New Jersey to inform consumers about drinking water quality in their communities and enable comparisons with other communities.
Several participants also emphasized the need to communicate with the public and elected officials about the value of safe water and its benefits to public health and the economy, in part as a way to build trust. Pullin Fedinick commented that “most people don’t even know how they get their finished drinking water,” so there is a need to communicate with consumers about how water affects their lives and how the water system works.
More specifically, Hawkins and Roberson emphasized the need to help communities understand the connection between rate increases and the quality of their water. Hawkins noted that communicating the value proposition—ensuring customers understand their investment in water—is important and requires relationships with customers. Mullin also discussed the importance of effective risk communication to communities, including the critical need to communicate with local decision makers, who have to sign off on a revenue or a rate increase. Other mechanisms for communicating with communities on issues around water quality include engaging the local news and press: journalists can make the connection between local issues and broader national problems. For example, Mullin pointed out that local newspapers played an important role in developing public understanding of the seriousness of water quality problems in Martin County, Kentucky, and Newark, New Jersey.
Involving communities in developing solutions is also key. Pullen Fedinick described the importance of making sure the most affected communities are involved in solutions. Lewis emphasized the same point, noting communities’ decision-making role: communities are more likely to support investment when they are included and understand the value proposition. Participants discussed a number of specific examples of developing solutions. Andrew Kricun (Camden County Municipals Authority) described his system’s program to address staffing issues by hiring and training a local workforce, which also enhanced relations and communication between the community and the utilities. He also noted the potential to capitalize on experience through mentoring of new staff by retired operators.
Communities are more likely to support investment when they are included and understand the value proposition. — Yvonne Lewis
Economies of Scale
Developing economies of scale across small water systems was a theme that emerged from the workshop and a direction Roberson and others said would be beneficial to communities. The increased efficiency associated with economies of scale can, according to LeChevallier and others, reduce overhead and operation and maintenance costs, allowing for greater investment in infrastructure. Oxenford pointed out that taking advantages of economies of scale can also improve oversight by simplifying the regulatory process and the number of systems that need to be managed.
There are a number of ways to increase economies of scale, including cooperatives and regional collaborations, which Teodoro reiterated can be seen as a continuum “from very low intensity collaboration, to full organizational consolidation—forming a new organization or folding into an existing one” (see Figure 1, above). Yet there are also concerns with some of the oft-suggested approaches to economies of scale, according to Beecher, who expressed caution about privatization and consolidation.
Communities in Kentucky, Alaska, and California have already taken action to increase economies. In Kentucky, the governor created a unified vision that encourages long-term strategic planning and regional consolidation for smaller water systems. (The governor used money from the nationwide tobacco settlement.) In Alaska, Troy Ritter (CDC National Center for Environmental Health) explained, 12 small rural systems owned by the Yupik Eskimos in the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta of Alaska decided to work collaboratively and share resources, ultimately creating a program called the Rural Utility Cooperative (now the Rural Utility Collaborative). Today, there are about 30 communities in the collaborative; they are not physically connected systems, however, which poses challenges in terms of financially integrating the systems.
Camille Pannu (University of California, Irvine, School of Law) explained that cooperatives provide an opportunity for smaller water systems to create economies of scale relatively seamlessly, and they can be created as tax exempt and quasi-public. Cooperatives encourage systems to work together to purchase products and contract services, creating efficiencies and reducing operating costs. Virtual consolidation is another idea to support regional collaboration, supported by technology like low-cost, real-time monitoring and remote operational controls. Dvorak said that monitoring technology that offers real-time control is currently available and can support remote operations for smaller systems.
Several participants noted that there are challenges to creating economies of scale. Oxenford emphasized that regional collaboration must be a good fit for the community and requires time and trust to implement, as well as a need to recognize and address cultural barriers to working effectively together. Lewis and Dvorak emphasized that there is a need to inform communities about the value of the collaboration and build confidence in these systems by showing successful efforts.
Several workshop participants, including Steve Wilson (University of Illinois) and Dvorak, discussed the importance of creating incentives for water systems to consolidate or develop cooperatives. Wilson described how funding mechanisms and regulatory changes through the Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund,3 the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and others can serve as key actors in driving this change by creating funding incentives for small utilities to drive structural reforms.
The need to create regulatory pressure for consolidation of systems that are cited for repeat water quality violations was also discussed at the workshop. Participants discussed the need to stop businesses that are out of compliance or have reoccurring health violations. Frederick described California’s actions to create incentives for consolidation, including legislatively recognizing the human right to water in 2012; working toward improving public transparency around water quality violations to push local action; and receiving mandatory consolidation authority, which led to economies of scale, primarily in disadvantaged communities with a record of health violations.
Governance and Oversight
In discussing actions related to governance and oversight, participants said that improving oversight is key in terms of timely action on health violations of water quality. Hawkins said that addressing compliance requirements and enforcement obligations is imperative. Mullin said there is an opportunity for states to help communities by integrating or centralizing assistance to address the fragmentation in oversight of interconnected factors, including financial oversight, SDWA oversight, and supply supervision from environmental agencies.
Participants also discussed local oversight structures. Mullin said that establishing water boards could provide a solution to some of the oversight challenges facing water systems if the boards are well constituted. Kricun emphasized the importance of training the members of water boards to hold the public entities they oversee accountable by providing more consistent, focused oversight. Regulatory agencies could ensure they have this training. Oxenford said he believed that training of water board members and local elected officials would increase needed investment in long-term water projects.
Workshop participants also discussed how oversight and reporting could be improved by making reporting requirements with “more teeth.” For example, Sturm described how in New Jersey, a state that is characterized as weak on enforcement, nonprofit organizations have been working with utility partners. They were expecting legislation in 2020 to require clear, publicly available, reporting requirements so that everyone, including consumers, can have a better understanding of how well their water utility is performing and whether it is improving or worsening over time. In establishing reporting requirements, she and other participants stressed that it is important to include data on how well individual systems are meeting external parameters for utility health and water quality. Mullin added that developing indicators of utility health, beyond the focus of SDWA violations, would better enable assessment of water system performance.
Another governance and oversight opportunity participants emphasized was streamlining technology evaluation and approval. Specifically, Dvorak and others described a need for improved state processes for technology approval and creating mechanisms for sharing evaluations of innovative technologies. Dvorak noted that agencies do not frequently consider new technologies for small systems, and staff at many agencies do not have sufficient background to evaluate new technologies for possible approval.
Strengthening Existing Water Systems
Looking beyond governance and oversight, workshop participants engaged in much discussion about other opportunities to strengthen existing water systems, especially technical assistance, workforce development, financing structural inequities, and efficiencies to reduce operating and maintenance costs.
3 The Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund program is a federal-state partnership of EPA that provides communities low-cost financing for a wide range of water quality infrastructure projects.
The need for technical assistance was a recurring theme at the workshop, with several examples and strategies emphasized. Roberson noted that technical assistance is important for small communities, because they are never going to be able to have all the resources of large communities. The importance of the EPA’s funding of technical assistance programs was discussed. Kricun noted that EPA’s national peer-to-peer initiative for water treatment systems encourages hub utilities in each state to help under-resourced and lower-capacity utilities. Some participants called specifically for peer-to-peer initiatives to be expanded.
Chi Ho Sham (American Water Works Association) suggested broader collaboration of organizations like his and RCAP with federal and state governments and nonprofits to develop opportunities around regional collaboration for technical capacity. By engaging key stakeholders and other systems in these issues, he said, smaller water system operators can work collaboratively on common challenges, learning from larger systems and improving their ability to communicate with their customers and better assist their boards. Participants also discussed the important role and responsibility of universities in bridging the technical assistance gap for smaller water systems.
Participants noted that it is important to find low-cost options for bridging the technical assistance and capacity gap for under-resourced communities. Awareness of best practices can be facilitated through training and information sharing, participants said. Pannu suggested free assistance through recorded training sessions. Another point noted by participants is that although communities may struggle with internet connectivity, USDA has been providing funding for broadband in rural areas, and improved internet access would increase opportunities to provide technical assistance and capacity building.
Participants discussed how workforce capacity can be developed. Operator training programs create an employment pipeline for community members to work in facilities. For example, in considering the important role of apprenticeships for developing capacity, Roberson described a program designed and implemented by the National Rural Water Association, called “Learn and Earn.” In that program, individuals work through a community college to receive training, and they work under the supervision of a certified operator. The program, which runs about 18 months, leads to a position as the first level of certified operator. Roberson also discussed the American Water Works Association’s partnership with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to engage and train returning veterans in operator positions.
Teodoro noted the need for harmonizing national certification regimes for water system employees, given the variation in certification opportunities and the requirements to become recertified from state to state and community to community. Hawkins pointed to larger utilities that develop certification programs. A Washington, D.C., area water system led a green infrastructure certification program that allows water system employees to earn a credential that is recognized nationwide.
Financing and Structural Inequities
Financial resources were an important topic of the workshop, building on the oft-emphasized need to invest in drinking water infrastructure and capacity. Oxenford noted that there are several loan programs that can be harnessed to support and develop capacity, including EPA’s State Revolving Fund (SRF, discussed earlier in the workshop), the USDA, and private foundations. Kricun reinforced the idea that the SRF could be a helpful tool, noting that his system, the Camden County Municipals Authority in New Jersey, used the SRF program, along with internal efficiencies, to improve water quality and hold rates stable for 24 years. However, Roberson said, it is important to provide assistance in accessing other funds, such as state revolving funds. The process can be extremely burdensome: although there are a lot of loan programs out there, people need help getting through the paperwork and processes. Another opportunity that participants discussed was removing restrictions in federal funding that currently prevent support for operations and maintenance, particularly for the SRF.
Participants discussed the need to address the structural inequities related to water quality, particularly facing communities of color. For this need, they suggested several actions to prioritize assistance in underinvested systems. Pannu said it is important to acknowledge policies that can also redress racial inequalities, as it is now acknowledged how racial history affects how funds were distributed to certain communities. With regulatory modifications, Pannu and Burke noted, funds from such programs as SRF could be modified to target communities where are they are most needed, for example, communities of color. Pannu added that it would be important to “align our funding to first target the areas with the greatest public health threats but also who had the greatest social vulnerability and the greatest historic inequality.”
[It would be important to] align our funding to first target the areas with the greatest public health threats but also who had the greatest social vulnerability and the greatest historic inequality.
— Camille Pannu
Mullin brought up the need to consider cross-subsidization across systems to address racial and economic disparities. Mullin related this issue to how communities have addressed school financing: in most states, “we have explicitly taken on the fact that there is this racial history to the disparities across communities and their capacity to support public schools. I am struck by how infrequently we hear proposals to think about bringing cross-subsidization across systems into this conversation.” Also taking a broader view, Pullen Fedinick suggested using water as a way to focus on distressed communities and try to broadly improve public health. She warned of the danger in siloing work and instead called for a cumulative
consideration of the combined effects of water and air, for example, for a more complete understanding of how some communities are disproportionately affected by disinvestment over many decades.
Pannu and Frederick referred to California’s strategy of addressing some of the challenges by establishing a human right to water, as was mentioned earlier in the workshop. This was an important step in encouraging communities and leaders to recognize the importance of water quality, particularly for communities of color. Lastly, workshop participants also noted the value of exploring creative mechanisms for financing that spread costs beyond ratepayers, a topic that also came up in the discussion of research opportunities.
Efficiencies to Reduce Operating and Maintenance Costs
Marc LeChevallier and other workshop participants discussed the need to improve the overall efficiency of water systems in the long term by reducing operating and maintenance costs, which would enable more resources to support capital investment. He said 58% of water costs are for operation and maintenance, which represent the greatest opportunity for cost savings. Kricun said it is important to learn from the private sector about how to reduce costs and increase efficiency, which includes creating margins so funds are available for reinvestment in infrastructure.
58% of water costs are in the operation and maintenance, so there is the greatest opportunity for cost savings. — Marc LeChevellier
In discussing how to reduce the costs and create the margins for investment, participants discussed the need to invest in proven approaches and harness existing technologies. For example, Hawkins said, nearly every water utility functions in a similar manner and so “the techniques that we know will reduce costs, improve service, deliver better, are not that different across the United States.” He said there are several techniques that can be implemented broadly that are low cost, implementable, and approachable, but the challenge is that they have not been scaled up; each utility is assessing its own performance in isolation. Reinforcing this point, Kricun noted that while new technology is welcome, many of the larger utilities have demonstrated that existing technologies can solve many of the current challenges. The key is disseminating information about these approaches to other utilities, particularly smaller ones.
[Because almost all water utilities operate in a similar manner] the techniques that we know will reduce costs, improve service, deliver better, are not that different across the United States.
— George Hawkins
Teodoro and other workshop participants also discussed the importance of establishing government incentives for infrastructure investment at the local level. Teodoro cited the New Jersey Water Quality Accountability Act, which requires the top official of each organization to sign his or her name directly on the certification of the system. The implicit goal of the law is to hold the elected official accountable for the water utility’s performance.
Virtual managerial consolidation is another approach to reduce operating and maintenance costs, LeChevallier noted, as had been discussed earlier in the workshop.
Research and Technology Development
Conducting research to understand and improve water quality and the performance of water systems was discussed as a key issue during the workshop, including several specific needs for technology development. Wilson noted a need for low-cost, real-time monitoring technology to identify possible problems with drinking water quality and infrastructure conditions. Teodoro and Peter Grevatt (Water Research Foundation) said there is a need to develop technologies to support the movement toward economies of scale for smaller systems, including technology related to virtual consolidation.
Significant discussion was devoted to harnessing existing technologies. Wilson said a survey of states by the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators indicated the barrier to implementing and developing technology is information dissemination among states and systems. LeChevallier suggested enhancing federal support of technological innovation and establishing common standards for technology development, which could be tackled via public private partnerships through the U.S. Small Business Association or maybe the Department of Commerce.
Research on Strategies
Several workshop participants said that research to analyze strategies that have been tried is very much needed. Strategies discussed throughout the workshop included models for increasing economies of scale, strategies for increasing efficiencies, strategies for infrastructure investment, and financing. Participants said that the need to examine what models have been effective in creating economies of scale for small systems was of specific interest.
Kricun, LeChevallier, and Patrick Breysse (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) called for pilot projects to explore models for increasing efficiency. Pilot projects have demonstrated promise at the state level for increasing technology innovation, and Breysse suggested federal agencies could provide funding to more fully examine the barriers, strengths, and weaknesses of various approaches and technology.
Federal agencies could provide pilot funding to more fully examine the barriers, strengths, and weaknesses of various approaches and technology. — Patrick Breysse
Along the same lines, participants stressed the need to analyze the benefits of alternative strategies for infrastructure investment, including exploring creative mechanisms for financing that spread costs beyond ratepayers. One participant suggested something that would be analogous to a carbon tax. Pannu, May, and others noted that the people who are creating the water treatment problems are not being targeted to help pay for ameliorating those problems. Corporate polluters could contribute financially to water systems, to address the pollution and other water quality problems that may be a result of their activities.
In closing, Mullin called for research related to developing indicators of utility health. She emphasized that it is not enough to focus on SDWA violations to assess water system performance: “If we want universal access to safe, high-quality drinking water at an affordable price, we have to also think about other indicators of water system performance.”
TABLE 1 Potential Actions Suggested by Individual Workshop Participants to Address Water Quality Issues
|Area of Focus||Potential Actions||Possible Actorsa|
|Knowledge and Data|
|Monitor water quality according to regulatory requirements||Utilities|
|Collect water quality data at a sufficiently granular level||Utilities|
|Increase monitoring at point of use and other places in the distribution system (away from the plant)||Utilities
Public health departments
|Develop up-to-date digitized maps of community water systems||Utilities|
|Community Engagement and Communication|
|Empower communities with data to build trust and support action||Create transparency about water quality and violations (e.g., water quality dashboards that enable comparisons across systems)||Utilities
|Improve community understanding of the importance of water quality||Communicate with the public and elected officials about the value of safe water and its benefits to public health and the economy||Utilities
|Help communities understand the connection between rate increases and the quality of their water||Utilities
|Involve communities in developing solutions||Build relationships to improve communication with the public||Utilities Citizens|
|Hire and train a local workforce||Utilities|
|Capitalize on experience when managing systems||Utilities|
|Economies of Scale|
|Develop water system cooperatives, regional collaborations or other approaches to create economies of scale across small water systems||Utilities
Local and state governments
|Create incentives for consolidation and cooperatives||Local and state governments
|Address cultural barriers to cooperatives or consolidation||Utilities
Local and state governments
|Create regulatory pressure for consolidation on systems with repeated quality violations||Local and state governments
|Strengthening Existing Water Systems|
|Technical assistance||Establish or expand peer-to-peer initiatives||Federal government Utilities Nongovernmental organizations Educational institutions|
|Facilitate awareness of best practices through training and information sharing||Federal government
TABLE 1 Continued
|Area of Focus||Potential Actions||Possible Actorsa|
|Strengthening Existing Water Systems|
|Workforce development||Provide operator training to create employment pipeline||Utilities
|Harmonize national standards for operator certification)||Nongovernmental organizations
|Develop certification programs||Utilities|
|Financing||Provide assistance in accessing State Revolving Fund and other loan programs||State and local government
|Remove federal funding restrictions that prevent support for operations and maintenance||Federal government|
|Prioritize assistance toward underinvested systems to address structural inequities||Modify regulations that guide the SRF to prioritize funding toward communities with a history of disinvestment and inequity||Federal government
|Consider cross-subsidization across systems||State and local government|
|Legislatively establish human right to water||Nongovernmental organizations
|Reduce operating and maintenance costs||Invest in proven approaches that ultimately decrease costs and improve operations||Utilities|
|Establish government incentives for infrastructure investment and improved management at the local level||Federal government
State and local government
|Implement virtual managerial consolidation||Utilities|
|Research and Technology Development|
|Develop specific technologies and tools||Develop low-cost, real-time monitoring technology to identify drinking water quality issues and condition of infrastructure||Researchers
|Enhance federal support of technological innovation||Federal government|
|Establish common standards for technology development||Federal government
|Explore strategies through analysis and pilots||Explore various models for increasing economies of scale for small systems (e.g., quasi-public cooperatives, virtual managerial consolidation)||Researchers
|Pilot strategies to increase efficiency, especially for smaller systems||Researchers
State and local government
|Analyze benefits of alternative strategies for infrastructure investment||Researchers
|Explore creative mechanisms for financing that spread costs beyond ratepayers||Researchers
State and local government
|Develop indicators of utility health||Researchers
Local and state governments
NOTE: This table lists potential actions attributed to individual workshop participants; it does not include all actions mentioned by participants. These potential actions are not consensus conclusions or recommendations of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
a Potential actors have been inferred when participants did not explicitly identify actors.
DISCLAIMER: This Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief was prepared by Marilee Shelton-Davenport, Stephanie Johnson, and Jennifer Saunders as a factual summary of what occurred at the workshop. The statements recorded here are those of the individual workshop participants and do not necessarily represent the views of all participants, the workshop planning committee, the Environmental Health Matters Initiative committee, or the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
REVIEWERS: To ensure that this Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief meets institutional standards of quality and objectivity, it was reviewed in draft form by Catherine L. Kling, Cornell University; Amy Pruden, Virginia Tech; and Alan Roberson, Association of State Drinking Water Administrators. The review comments and draft manuscript remain confidential to protect the integrity of the process.
Workshop planning committee members are Martha Rudolph (Chair), Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (retired); Maura Allaire, University of California, Irvine; Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson, Indiana University, Bloomington; Mark LeChevallier, Dr. Water Consulting; Camille Pannu, University of California, Irvine; Devon Payne-Sturges, University of Maryland; Amy Pruden, Virginia Tech; Deborah Swackhamer, University of Minnesota; and Steven Wilson, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Members of the Environmental Health Matters Initiative committee are Thomas A. Burke (Chair), Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health; Darrell Boverhof, Dow; George P. Daston, Procter & Gamble Company; Ana V. Diez Roux, Dornsife School of Public Health at Drexel University; Linda J. Fisher, DuPont; Estelle Geraghty, Esri; Lynn R. Goldman, George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health; Daniel S. Greenbaum, Health Effects Institute; Gavin Huntley-Fenner, Huntley-Fenner Advisors; Philip R. Johnson, The Heinz Endowments; Beth Karlin, See Change Institute; Jennifer McPartland, Environmental Defense Fund; Devon C. Payne-Sturges, Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health at the University of Maryland, School of Public Health; Amy Pruden, Virginia Tech; Martha E. Rudolph, Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment; Jonathan M. Samet, Colorado School of Public Health; and Deborah L. Swackhamer, University of Minnesota.
Liaisons of the Environmental Health Matters Initiative committee are Francie Abramson, Target; John Balbus, NIH/National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences; Linda Birnbaum, NIH/National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences; Patrick Breysse, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Elizabeth Cisar, The Joyce Foundation; Natasha DeJarnett, National Environmental Health Association; Zach Freeze, Walmart; Richard Fuller, Pure Earth; David Fukuzawa, The Kresge Foundation; Carlos Gonzalez, National Institute of Standards Technology; Al McGartland, Environmental Protection Agency; Ansje Miller, Health and Environmental Funders Network; Gary Minsavage, Exxon-Mobil Corporation; Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Surili Patel, American Public Health Association; Geoffrey S. Plumlee, U.S. Geological Survey; Karl Rockne, National Science Foundation; John Seibert, Department of Defense; Robert Skoglund, Covestro; Joel Tickner, Green Chemistry and Commerce Council (GC3); Juli Trtanj, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and Jalonne White-Newsome, The Kresge Foundation.
The Environmental Health Matters Initiative, under which this workshop was organized, has been supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, ExxonMobil, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Target Corporation, and Walmart Foundation, as well as the National Academy of Sciences Cecil and Ida Green Fund and the National Academy of Sciences George and Cynthia Mitchell Endowment for Sustainability Science. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for the project.
Suggested citation: National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Quality Water from Every Tap: Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/26069.
Division on Earth and Life Studies
Copyright 2021 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.