Your Water: Where Does It Come From and Who Ensures Its Safety?

By Jill Luther, NYSAC Program Administrator
Water is a finite resource. Between 70 and 75 percent of the earth's surface is covered with water, but only 1 percent of that is drinkable. While both world population and the demand for freshwater resources are increasing, supply remains constant. Assuring the delivery of safe drinking water is critical to the public health and well-being of all New Yorkers.

Concerns about drinking water quality and contamination are rising in communities across the country. It is important to know who is ensuring the safety of our drinking water, where it comes from, what it should be tested for and how often. The United States Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) established the public water system supervision program under the authority of the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).
Under the SDWA, EPA sets national limits on contaminant levels in drinking water to ensure that the water is safe for human consumption. 
The EPA also regulates how often public water systems monitor their water for contaminants and report the monitoring results to the state
and EPA.

The New York State Department of Health (DOH) oversees the supply of drinking water to ensure that it is suitable for people to drink. The DOH in partnership with county health departments, regulates the operation, design and quality of public water supplies. 

Thirty-six counties and the New York City Health Department have some oversight of public drinking water systems within their jurisdiction. Public water systems within the remaining  -one counties in the state are directly regulated by the DOH.

Drinking Water Standards
Drinking water standards are regulated by the Federal government through the EPA to control the level of contaminants in the nation's drinking water. The regulations require water monitoring schedules and methods to measure contaminants in water. There are two categories of drinking water standards. Primary, which are legally enforceable and limit the levels of specific contaminants that may harm health and secondary, which are non-enforceable guidelines for contaminants that may cause cosmetic or aesthetic effects to drinking water.

EPA has drinking water regulations for more than 90 contaminants. The Safe Drinking Water Act defines the term “contaminant” as meaning any physical, chemical, biological, or radiological substance or matter in water. The law defines “contaminant” very broadly as being anything other than water molecules. Drinking water may reasonably be expected to contain at least small amounts of some contaminants. Some drinking water  ontaminants may be harmful if consumed at certain levels in drinking water while others may be harmless.

Public water suppliers test for a variety of man-made chemicals, naturally occurring contaminants, physical characteristics and microbial pathogens. The type of testing and the frequency may be dependent upon the population served, source water type and/or public water supply type.

County health departments work closely with public water supply owners and operators to assure compliance with appropriate New York State Rules and Regulations that apply to Public Water Systems (PWS). If violations of EPA standards are found through routine sampling/testing, water system customers must be notified by the supplier. Community public water suppliers are required to issue Annual Water Quality Reports by May 31st each year to their customers. These reports contain information about the water source, any contaminants found in the drinking water and possible health effects.

Lead & Other Contaminants
Since natural levels of lead in New York State water supplies are low, lead in drinking water usually results from the use of lead pipe in water systems or lead based solders on water pipes. Water in the plumbing system can dissolve lead from pipes and solder. This is called leaching. Soft, corrosive or acidic (low pH) water is more likely to cause leaching. Water left standing in the pipes over a long period of time also increases leaching. The longer the water stands in the pipes, the greater the possibility of lead being dissolved into the water. Stray electrical currents from improperly grounded electrical outlets or equipment also may increase the level of lead in drinking water. Pipes that carry drinking water from the source to homes can contribute lead to the drinking water, if the pipes were constructed or repaired using lead materials. Other sources of contamination occur from aging
infrastructure and New York State's closed manufacturing facilities.

In a report given in 2013 on its most recent needs surveys, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that the funding needed to replace aging drinking water infrastructure in the United States totaled $335 billion.

Contaminant Candidate list
The drinking water contaminant candidate list (CCL) is a list of contaminants identified by the Federal government that are currently 
not subject to any national primary drinking water regulations, but are known or anticipated to occur in public water systems. Contaminants
listed on the CCL may result in future regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). Federal law requires the EPA to publish
the CCL every five years. SDWA specifies that the EPA place those contaminants on the list that present the greatest public health concern
related to exposure from drinking water. EPA uses the CCL to identify priority contaminants for regulatory decision making and information
The EPA published the draft CCL (4th) in February 2015, and took public comment through early April 2015. They are currently reviewing the
public comments and anticipate publishing the final CCL 4 in late 2016 or early 2017. The draft CCL includes Perflourooctanoic Acid (PFOA).
PFOA has recently been found in some upstate New York community water systems and private wells.