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Water: Safe Drinking Water Act

SENATE Committee Report on S.1316 Report 104-169



Under current law, the term 'public water system' is defined to include only those water supply systems that deliver water for human consumption through a pipe or pipes. Other systems that may deliver water to a home or other location for drinking, cooking and bathing by a ditch or a canal (typically the water is being transported for irrigation, but may have incidental use for residential water supply) are not considered public water systems. The bill modifies the definition of 'public water system' to include some systems that provide water for residential and similar uses by means other than a piped system.

Modifications to the definition of 'primary drinking water regulation' are also made by the bill. The changes provide that: (1) only accepted methods for quality control and testing may be imposed by a national primary drinking water regulation; and (2) that the Administrator may issue guidance after a regulation has been promulgated to allow the use of other methods to comply with the monitoring requirements in a regulation.

The bill also adds definitions for 'community water system' and 'noncommunity water system' and modifies the definitions of 'State' and 'Indian tribes' for purposes of the new State revolving loan fund grant program authorized by part G.


Current law defines a 'public water system' to include only those water supply systems "for the provision to the public of piped water for human consumption." In December, 1992, the Environmental Protection Agency issued an administrative order to an irrigation district delivering water to residential users through canals requiring it to comply with the maximum contaminant levels and monitoring requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act. EPA issued the order following an investigation that led the Agency to believe that the sale of untreated canal water to 5,700 residential users could lead to the ingestion of contaminants and constituted a risk to public health. Although most residential consumers served by this system treated the water before using it, or obtained bottled or trucked water for drinking and cooking, EPA stated that there was reason to believe that some users were ingesting the canal water without treatment.

The irrigation district sought review of the order under the judicial review provisions of the Act. In an opinion issued on September 7, 1993, Imperial Irrigation District v. U.S. E.P.A., 4 F.3d 774 (9th Cir. 1993), the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the Imperial Irrigation District is not a public water system within the meaning of the Safe Drinking Water Act because it does not constitute a system of "piped water" for human consumption. The bill modifies the definition of "public water system" in the Act to assure that systems such as the Imperial Irrigation District delivering water for human consumption by constructed conveyances (ditches, canals, culverts, etc.; but not including bottled or trucked water) in addition to piped systems are subject to the requirements of the Act as public water systems.

The definition of public water system is modified by expanding the reference to delivery systems to include "pipes or other constructed conveyances". The term "constructed conveyances" refers to transport systems such as ditches, canals, culverts, waterways and similar delivery systems that are manmade and that transport large quantities of water in a utility network. The term does not include water delivered by bottle or in other package units, by vending machines or coolers and does not include water that is trucked or delivered by a similar vehicle.

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Under current law, water delivery systems are not public water systems if they serve less than 15 connections and less than 25 persons. The definition of public water system is further modified in the bill to exclude from consideration certain connections that might otherwise qualify a system as a public water system. These exclusions only apply (with an exception noted below) where the water is delivered by a constructed conveyance other than a pipe. The first exclusion is for connections where the water delivered by the system is not used for drinking or cooking for residential or similar uses. In this case, water is provided by the system for these uses from another source such as bottled water or trucked water. The alternative source of water for these uses must be provided (not merely be available) and must meet a level of health protection equivalent to the applicable national primary drinking water regulation.

The second exclusion applies where the water is used for drinking and cooking, but the water is treated prior to use. In this instance, the water may be treated centrally or at the point-of-entry to a residence or other facility where similar uses occur by the water system, by a pass-through entity or by the consumer. As a general principle, the Safe Drinking Water Act does not allow a public water system to place the burden of compliance on the consumer. However, in many rural areas, a water system that is constructed principally for irrigation or other agricultural and industrial uses may not desire to be regulated as a public water system and would decline to provide water to residential users, if the system were required to provide the treatment. Therefore, in this second case the obligation to treat the water to a level of public health protection equivalent to the applicable national primary drinking water regulation may appropriately be assumed by the consumer to assure that people living in rural areas are not precluded from obtaining the best quality water at an affordable cost.

Generally, the bill excludes these two types of connections from consideration only where the connection is to a water system that conveys water by means other than pipes. Piped water systems may not avoid regulation as public water systems by providing bottled water or treating at the point of entry. However, an exception is made for some piped water delivery systems that were in operation prior to May 18, 1994, and that were constructed principally for the purpose of agricultural service with only incidental use for human consumption. These piped systems are not to be considered public water systems if all of the connections to the system comply with the requirements applicable under one or the other of the exclusions for alternative water or point-of-entry treatment noted above.

The bill includes new definitions for 'community water system' and 'noncommunity water system'. Community water systems include those systems that are connected to 15 year-round residences or serve 25 persons in a residential setting on a year-round basis. Noncommunity water systems are all other public water systems that are not community water systems. This distinction has significance in several cases under the statute and the regulations issued by EPA. For instance all community water systems, whether owned by a public or by a private entity, are eligible for assistance under the new SRF grant program. However, only some noncommunity systems are eligible (those that are owned by a public entity or a nonprofit organization). There are approximately 57,000 community water systems and 128,000 noncommunity water systems in the United States.

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Under current law, the term State includes all of the 50 States, territories and the District of Columbia. For purposes of the allocation formula under the new SRF program, the term 'State' is limited by the bill to the 50 States and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The District of Columbia and the territories also receive funds under the SRF program, but the funds are allocated through a set aside rather than proportionately based on formula factors.

Also for the purposes of the new SRF program, the definition of 'Indian Tribe' under the Act is expanded to include any Native Village as defined in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

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