"Challenges and Opportunities of Source Water Protection"
Plenary Address to the National Source Water Protection Conference
Washington, DC - June 2, 2003
Delivered by G. Tracy Mehan, III
Assistant Administrator for Water, United States Environmental Protection Agency
Good morning. I would like to extend a gracious welcome to all of you attending this National Source Water Protection Conference in our nation's capital.
When we began planning this conference more than a year ago, we had no idea that we would have such intense interest and great attendance. This is particularly notable in an economic time where travel dollars are at a premium. Kudos are due to the EPA staff and many others who made this conference happen.
There is an ancient Chinese proverb... "When drinking water, think of its source". I am so happy to be here to speak with Americans who are as enthusiastic as I am about protecting America's waters, particularly those waters that serve as our sources of drinking water. Protecting public health is one of EPA's primary missions. And protecting and providing safe drinking water is one of my top priorities. Your attendance at this meeting signals that you already know how important source water protection is to our country. In my view, accomplishing the mission of protecting our drinking water relies on three key concepts:
- Preventing contaminants from entering water through pollution control and use of best management practices within a watershed framework;
- Integrating programs from the federal to the local level to make the best use of our resources and to take advantage of collateral benefits;
- and Collaborating with all of our stakeholders - whether it be other federal agencies, local governments, watershed managers, environmental groups, public water systems and their customers, and people who get their water from individual ground water wells.
You will find that these three concepts are integrated into the conference's "Path to Protection" theme. This morning I would like to focus my attention on how the ethic of protecting drinking water sources is being fully integrated into EPA's agenda – into how we think about and plan for our business activities. I am also going to give you my perspective on how critical it is that we all seize the opportunity of this moment to make source water protection an integral part of our mutual public health responsibility.
In part, we are here this week to take credit for the success of the source water assessment program. In only a few years, states and public water systems have stepped up to the plate to complete work required under the 1996 Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments. They have delineated protection areas, identified sources of contamination within those areas, evaluated the susceptibility of the drinking water to contaminants that are present, and made the results of those assessments available to the public.
The overwhelming majority of the nation's population is provided water by community water systems. I am happy to report that, as of today, assessments have been completed in 32,000 systems, which reflects 6 out of every 10 community water systems in the country. We expect the balance of assessments to be completed within the year. I cannot stress enough how critical it is that states complete these assessments in a timely fashion so that the information is available for all to use to begin to move towards protecting our resources. The source water assessment program and ensuing protection efforts provide a fine example of President Bush's emphasis on local stewardship of natural resources.
Challenges and Opportunities
As all of you know, the challenges ahead of us are numerous. More than 270 million Americans receive their water from public water systems. As population increases and the economy grows, pressures on our water supplies increase. For example, between 1960 and 1995, there was a 100% increase in withdrawals by public water systems. Many communities throughout the country are in the midst of a multi-year drought that has affected their citizens, environment and economic health.
Our nation's waters - both ground water and surface water - are impacted by multiple sources of pollution including stormwater runoff from increasing urbanization and diffuse, non-point runoff of nutrients, sediments and pesticides from agricultural practices and animal feeding operations. Improved detection methods have allowed us to identify ground water contamination due to various types of pathogens, organic compounds and inorganic compounds. Recent studies by the U.S. Geological Survey have found emerging contaminants and contaminant mixtures such as pharmaceuticals, detergent metabolites and natural and synthetic hormones in surface waters. Some sources are directly attributable to the way that we are living. For example, some 25% of U.S. homes, and 33% of all new developments use on-site wastewater systems. EPA studies have found that some 10-20% of on-site systems are improperly managed, resulting in failures and malfunctions.
But where there are challenges, there are also opportunities. While some form of treatment may always be needed, preventing contamination from entering water bodies serves as the first barrier to reducing consumer exposure to contaminants in their drinking water. Prevention can also serve as a cost-effective means of achieving public health protection because when contaminants are prevented from entering sources of drinking water, the costs of cleaning up polluted waters by installing expensive treatment can be avoided.
Actions taken by the public, local and state governments, and private business to protect sources of drinking water can help prevent contamination of water bodies, increase homeland security and ensure adequate supplies of safe drinking water into the future.
Engaging the public through wide distribution of accurate, accessible and understandable information on our sources of drinking water can generate extensive public and private actions that are needed to help prevent contamination. It is also consistent with the principle that a more aware and informed public translates into increased homeland security. Thanks, in part, to the availability of Consumer Confidence Reports that public water systems are required to deliver to their customers every year, the American public has a greater appreciation of the importance of protecting America's drinking water resources. Consider these findings from a poll conducted for EPA by the Gallup organization.
- 7 out of 10 Americans receiving public water were able to identify their sources of drinking water (lake, reservoir, aquifer)
- 94% agreed that receiving information on possible contaminants, health effects, and source protection is important.
- 85% indicated that they would be interested or willing to learn more information about source water and take action towards source water protection
All of this interest, and yet, the same survey showed that only 4% of those surveyed had seen their source water assessments. Imagine the support that will be generated when 100% of customers have seen their assessments and understand the actions that they can help take to protect their own sources of drinking water!
Source Water Protection within a Watershed Framework
Over the past 30 years, our nation has made considerable gains in improving the quality of our nation's waters. Much of this can be attributed to efforts to prevent pollution from entering our water - through the construction of infrastructure to reduce pollutant loadings, permitting, conservation efforts and other activities. To aggressively conserve those gains, we are committed to working on a watershed basis - this means, in part, continuing to integrate our efforts across programs so that they work where you need them to C at the local level. Many of you are leaders in just such projects in your communities. One of our challenges is to help spread this approach to the thousands of other watersheds where it can significantly improve the level of resource protection.
The National Water Program is boldly demonstrating this place-based approach with the Administration's new Watershed Initiative. This initiative has begun in earnest. On May 2, the Administrator announced the selection of 20 watersheds from across the country to receive grants ranging from $300,000 to $1 million for special restoration and protection projects for more than 90,000 square miles of the nation's lakes, rivers and streams. These projects will serve as models of the diversity of approaches that can achieve successful protection. They will also demonstrate the power of cooperation among interested parties. Six of these projects have significant components that will protect waters used for drinking water - including implementing agricultural best management practices, and promoting sustainable practices by local governments.
I view source water protection, with its strong public health focus, as a core component of the watershed approach. In turn, there are many elements of the source water protection program that support a watershed approach. I know that source water protection is not new - not for the Agency and certainly not for this group. Many of you pioneered efforts to protect our nation's sources of drinking water. Our nation has a firm foundation of state, utility and community initiatives –including the Sole Source Aquifer, Underground Injection Control, and Wellhead Protection programs. However, the commitment to a multi-barrier approach in the 1996 SDWA Amendments has taken us to a new level. Since 1996, every state has implemented a Source Water Assessment Program tailored to its particular needs with EPA's full participation and approval.
As I noted earlier, states are well on their way to completing assessments for the nation's water systems. The assessments required under the program should clarify the threats to each water supply and provide real information for each community in the nation to use in developing a strategy for protection. The aggregated information should also allow us to understand the key sources of contamination threatening the nation's source waters and which source waters are most threatened. This is critical to priority setting and resource allocation at all levels of government.
But our work is not over. The assessments provide us with a solid foundation of information upon which to base local, sound, risk-based management decisions. The challenge now is to move beyond the assessments and use the information to develop and implement protection strategies that will serve to minimize the risks to source waters in all delineated source water areas. Many of you have been engaged in protection programs for many years. Participants in the programs have included state and local governments, water suppliers, nongovernmental agencies, citizens groups and the private sector.
Over the last five years, EPA has provided more than $20 Million in funding directed by Congress to organizations that have developed plans in thousands of communities, implemented demonstration source water protection programs and best management practices. Government agencies and technical assistance providers have distributed outreach and technical documents to thousands of professionals. States are using funding from their federal Drinking Water State Revolving Fund grants to develop state-wide programs and implement protection measures for individual systems. It is through efforts such as these and meetings like this, that we will accomplish our goal of protecting water at the local level.
Integrating the Water Programs
Historically, there was a fragmented and stovepipe approach to our environmental programs. At EPA, we have offices for drinking water, wastewater, watersheds and science. Within the federal government, water programs can be found in agencies for the Environment, Agriculture and the Interior. In the past we have not always taken advantage of connections and areas of overlap both within EPA and outside of the Agency. While there is still work to be done, we have been moving aggressively to break down the walls between programs and agencies. We have to do this - the changing nature of threats and risks demand it.
Although a decade of effort has resulted in general awareness of the watershed approach, recent evaluations show substantial gaps in integrating activities on the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Act sides of the house. Source water protection, by its very nature, is not a "stand alone" program. Therefore, it can provide a great platform for effectively integrating key federal, state and local functions to protect America's sources of drinking water such as:
- Integrating activities conducted under the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act;
- Ensuring that water security initiatives support and are supported by source protection actions; and
- Engaging in cross-agency program coordination initiatives, including partnerships with agriculture.
Because regional problems often require regional solutions, we are also encouraging and facilitating state and local efforts to adopt a similar strategic and integrated approaches to their work.
At EPA, our Office of Water is working hard to make the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts work together more effectively. Properly directed, the Clean Water Act is one of the best tools to help protect sources of drinking water. I am committed to ensure that we fully realize this potential. For example, some thirty years into the Clean Water Act, we are working with states to complete the job of guaranteeing that waters used as public water supplies are accurately designated for that use and that water quality criteria are in place to protect the public water supply use.
In the development of the Agency's new Strategic Plan, which will set our priorities and resource allocations for 2003 through 2008, we are setting a specific goal to minimize risks to the nation's source waters. Also, for the first time, we will have explicit Clean Water Act measures in support of drinking water source protection. Thus, our priorities, our resources and our work will match our rhetoric.
The availability of information is critical to integration at the federal, state and local levels. Every day, people must use information to make decisions about how to manage problems, allocate resources, demonstrate success, or identify where improvements are needed. It is important that governments, associations, groups, and most importantly, individual citizens have access to the information that they need to make those decisions. Any data we make available to them must be of high quality. Through improvements to our data systems; taking advantage of the Internet and GIS tools; and promoting the principle of wide dissemination of information, we are carrying out our responsibility to create an informed citizenry.
Key, however, to improving information-based environmental protection decisions is our need to improve and increase monitoring. Monitoring resources continue to be extremely insufficient and thus underutilized. While we work to improve the resources available, we will also be focusing on quality and compatibility issues. It is imperative that we close all information gaps as quickly as possible: they lead to market and regulatory failures, thwart our ability to measure progress and limit our ability to target resources. Strengthening our monitoring program for both surface and ground water will allow for special emphasis on drinking water sources to support expeditious actions to protect or clean up these critical resources.
We in the Office of Water are taking other key actions which will have positive effects for protecting sources of drinking water. I have established a Watershed Management Council that is comprised of Senior Agency leaders to ensure that our internal core programs are integrating within each program and across programs to achieve water program objectives.
We also have initiatives to implement the Total Maximum Daily Load Program (TMDLs to some), Permitting, Watershed Trading, and Research programs. Trading, watershed based permitting, and source water assessments can help us invest more holistically in water quality. And we can use both the TMDL's and the source water assessments to translate resource quality information into actions to strategically maintain and restore water quality. An overall Research program which includes source water research is also necessary to support all the objectives noted above. This includes expediting development of criteria for drinking water contaminants and increasing the quality of assessments for TMDLs, monitoring and security contingency plans.
Water Security Initiatives and Source Water Protection
Since September 11, 2001, the nation as a whole has been paying greater attention to the security of critical infrastructure. The nation's larger water utilities have been working hard to complete Congressionally mandated vulnerability assessments and emergency response plans. They are actively working to enhance the security of their facilities from intentional and unintentional threats.
It makes good sense that states, water suppliers and all stakeholders involved in source water assessments and vulnerability assessments work together to combine the analytical results of these two assessments in the best way possible to ensure protection. And, given that source water protection and security strategic planning are now ripe for action, it would be an opportunity missed if the stakeholders involved in these activities are not sharing ideas when such strategies and plans are being developed.
Improving our Partnership with Agriculture
Relying on robust partnerships will continue to be a working model for the Office of Water and we are going to focus most immediately on working with the United States Department of Agriculture, both in Washington and at the state level, to ensure that USDA and EPA target their resources in a complementary manner. Most immediately, USDA is cooperating with EPA by providing technical assistance to Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations to help these livestock producers develop the nutrient management plans required under the new rule.
The 2002 Farm Bill authorized significant levels of funding and new programs to enhance conservation. For instance, Congress authorized over $5.8 billion dollars for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) program over the six-year life of the Farm Bill. Because of the emphasis USDA has on making decisions on resource priorities as close to the local level as possible, state agencies and drinking water suppliers need to significantly expand their partnerships with the agricultural community. For example,
- State agencies and drinking water utilities should have a representative on every USDA-Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) State Technical Committee. These committees advise the NRCS State Conservationist on priorities for spending cost-share funds for farmers under the EQIP program.
- Public drinking water systems should also work with their local Conservation Districts and USDA field offices to help develop local priorities for EQIP funding.
- One of the challenges in working with the agricultural community is that producers may not understand the direct links between their practices and source water quality. Water suppliers can assist USDA and Conservation Districts by increasing outreach to agricultural producers in their source water protection areas.
Collaboration is Key
EPA can play a key role in integrating these federal statutory programs to protect our most precious water resources. But we need your help at the state and local levels. In each of America's communities, we need you to engage, educate and persuade one another in a mutual quest for shared goals and actions. Every one of you here today can serve as a catalyst for source water protection.
I encourage all of you to be active advocates for source water protection beyond the programs you are now working in: whether it is in monitoring, trading, evaluation, permitting, standard setting, or best management practice implementation. You should actively engage in cross-program coordination at the state and local levels. Too often, the state and local drinking water programs are implemented as if they were unrelated to the state and local Clean Water Act programs.
You can change this by participating in state decisions to designate uses under the Clean Water Act, set up water quality standards and determine monitoring priorities and help to implement programs that will address all the significant sources of contamination in your watersheds.
We must engage the agricultural community to ensure that they are full participants in the deliberations of source water protection at the state and local levels so that the many opportunities available under the Farm Bill programs are fully utilized for source water protection.
I am proud to be at a meeting such as this with those of you who clearly understand the critical nature of the roles you play. I want you to know that EPA is committed to supporting your state, local and private sector efforts. Given the work that is at hand and numerous competing priorities, sustaining momentum for source water protection is not without serious challenges.
The drinking water community has a key role to play in providing leadership and vision. You are working on the front lines to recognize threats, determine appropriate water treatment, and address security risks to protect the public's health. You are the best people to carry the message that avoiding contamination of the resource is an equally important barrier to protect against public health threats.
States are also key to this success through developing strategic approaches to working with each community, implementing state programs for specific types of contamination sources, and working with federal and private stakeholders.
Business has a special obligation to work closely with local government, water suppliers and citizens to see that the water which they use for drinking and other uses is sustained for all to use currently and in the future. After all, unsafe drinking water is bad for public health, and it's bad for business.
And finally, all citizens, individually, and working together in local organizations, have a responsibility to protect source waters.
Yes, there are significant challenges ahead. But there are also significant opportunities. As I noted at the beginning of this speech, I believe that successful efforts to protect our sources of drinking water are dependent on three key areas: prevention, integration and collaboration. The agenda for your meeting reflects these areas.
I know that you will be wrestling with the technical, programmatic and societal challenges of source water protection over the next few days - including emerging contaminants, drinking water security, financing programs, development pressures, prioritizing research, risk analysis and management. In looking over the list of registrants for the conference, I see that we have participants from throughout the country who work in all corners of the environmental and public health protection world. Your collaboration efforts begin here. I hope that you can make important connections and share your expertise with others at this meeting – during sessions and the all important coffee breaks.
I would like to thank each of you for attending this national conference. One of the theme's of this conference is "Source Water Protection is in Our Hands". EPA is committed to support the important work you carry out every day to protect public health. A famous cookbook written in 1918 noted that, "Water is the beverage provided for man by Nature". Thank you for your personal commitment to source water protection as a vital link in the chain that helps to protect the safety of Nature's beverage - drinking water – from the source to the tap.