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Drinking Water and Wells

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EPA protects human health from contaminants in drinking water by (1) setting national standards for tap water quality, and (2) establishing regulations to prevent contamination of both above-ground and below-ground sources of drinking water. States/tribes have an important role in regulating drinking water. Many State/tribal regulations on this subject are more stringent than the Federal regulations.

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Water Protection Task Force

EPA has established a water protection task force that will be charged with helping federal, state, and local partners to expand their tools to safeguard the nation's drinking water supply from terrorist attack.  EPA already has a strong coordinated partnership program for protecting drinking water; this task force will have specific duties to expand EPA's service to the community water system.

"The threat of public harm from an attack on our nation's water supply is small. Our goal here is to ensure that drinking water utilities in every community have access to the best scientific information and technical expertise they need, and to know what immediate steps to take and to whom to turn for help,"  said EPA Administrator Christine Whitman in announcing the task force on October 5, 2001.

EPA already has in place a notification system to quickly share information among drinking water providers, the law enforcement community (local, state and federal), and emergency response officials. This system, developed through a public/private partnership with the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA) and the FBI, alerts authorities and water system officials to threats, potential vulnerabilities and incidents. This type of notification went out as an FBI alert after the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. EPA has given the AMWA a $600,000 grant to continue to improve this notification system with a secure web-based "virtual center". The Information Sharing and Analysis Center can be accessed by all partners, including wastewater facilities.

In the unlikely event of an attack on a water system, a drinking water utility would activate its existing emergency response plan with state emergency officials. If needed, these plans provide for shutting down the system, notifying the public of any emergency steps they might need to take (for example, boiling water) and providing alternative sources of water.

Water systems in this nation are generally self-contained. Unlike other utilities that are interconnected across large parts of the nation, individual water systems serve a defined area. There are about 168,000 public water systems nationwide. Should an attack be suspected, EPA can dispatch expert emergency response personnel to the scene immediately, as was done for the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. These experts are located in all of EPA's ten regions and they have considerable experience in working with local, state and federal emergency officials and are prepared to help with monitoring, cleanup and expert advice on contaminants.

The water protection task force will be charged with providing immediate guidance to water systems on improving security. That guidance was sent out today. It will revise a draft 1998 infrastructure plan while continuing to implement the existing strategy. And it will identify potential gaps in infrastructure protection and preparedness. Finally, it will consult with the utility industry and the states and tribes to determine additional steps that can be taken to increase the security of our nation's drinking water supplies. The first report on these additional steps is due within two weeks.

The task force will consider how EPA can support efforts by utilities to accelerate local vulnerability assessments and mitigation actions. The goal is to ensure that water utilities are undertaking the steps to understand vulnerable points and to mitigate the threat from terrorist attacks as quickly as possible. The task force will work to speed up the availability of new advanced materials being prepared by EPA other federal agencies and private sector partners, that will be used in preparedness efforts.

EPA has worked closely with experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and U.S. Departments of Defense and Energy to better understand the potential of biological and chemical contaminants, and their fate and transport within drinking water. The information has been used to develop in-depth tools to help water systems assess vulnerabilities in their systems, determine actions that need to be taken to guard against an attack, and enhance emergency response plans. Beginning in a few weeks, EPA, along with the American Water Works Association (AWWA) and the AWWA Research Foundation, will provide training for management and employees in these advanced approaches to drinking water systems.

More information from EPA
Press Release announcing Water Protection Task Force

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Comprehensive State Groundwater Protection Program

Comprehensive State Ground Water Protection Programs establish a partnership between the States, tribal governments, and the EPA to implement EPA's groundwater protection goal and principles. The basic goal of the partnership between the States, tribes, and EPA is to achieve a more efficient, coherent, and comprehensive approach to the Nation's groundwater resources. Specific goals are to prevent contamination and to consider use, value, and vulnerability in setting priorities for both prevention and remediation.

Over 30 categories of potential groundwater contamination sources have been identified as threatening groundwater, which was once thought to be "self-cleaning" and naturally protected by layers of soil and earth.

Among major contaminant sources are synthetic and organic chemicals; fertilizers; pesticides; and wastes from agriculture, industry, humans, and animals. The importance of groundwater for drinking water and other beneficial uses is clear; so are its important ecological functions, such as its interconnections to surface water. Because cleanup is expensive and time consuming, prevention is the preferred strategy, and a prioritization of the resources in each State according to use and value should precede remediation in each case.

Groundwater Protection Program and Agriculture
The Safe Drinking Water Act allows States to establish a Comprehensive State Groundwater Protection Program to protect underground sources of drinking water. Under this program, a State/tribe can require an agricultural establishment or other agribusiness to use designated Best Management Practices (BMP’s) to help prevent contamination of groundwater by nitrates, phosphates, pesticides, microorganisms, or petroleum products. These requirements generally apply only to agricultural operations that are subject to public water system supervision.

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Disposing of Fluids Underground

Mandated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Underground Injection Control (UIC) Program works with State and local governments to regulate injection wells in order to prevent them from contaminating drinking water resources. EPA defines the five classes of wells according to the type of waste they inject and where the waste is injected.

Underground Injection Control and Agriculture
If an agricultural establishment or agribusiness disposes of (or formerly disposed of) fluids on-site in a well (any hole that is deeper than it is wide), such as a deep-cased well, dry well, seepage pit, cesspool, septic system, air conditioning return-flow well, or a drainage well designed for storm runoff, it may trigger EPA's Underground Injection Control Program.  Agricultural producers with agricultural drainage wells (Class V) must furnish inventory information to the State. A State may require an individual well permit. An agricultural producer must not inject any contaminant into an underground source of drinking water using a well if the contaminant may cause a violation of any primary drinking water regulation or may adversely affect human health.

If environmentally and economically feasible, the best solution to problems associated with agricultural drainage wells is to eliminate the well and return the land to natural drainage conditions. Because agricultural lands are diverse, no single BMP, or limited selection of BMPs, will always protect groundwater when certain agricultural drainage practices pose unacceptable risks. In the absence of closing the well, the following list of BMPs may be considered: conservation tillage; crop rotation; fertility or nutrient management; integrated pest management; livestock waste management; improvement of subsurface drainage; erosion control; and retention ponds.

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Drinking Water Systems

The public drinking water systems that EPA and delegated States and tribes regulate provide drinking water to 90 percent of Americans. These public drinking water systems, which may be publicly or privately owned, serve at least 25 people or 15 service connections for at least 60 days per year. In addition to setting maximum levels of contaminants that may be in drinking water, EPA (and delegated States and tribes) also sets requirements for the testing of drinking water. Under the Public Water Supply Supervision program, EPA implements and enforces drinking water standards to protect public health.

EPA requires that drinking water meet regulations if a farm serves piped water to an average of 25 people or more than 15 service connections for more than 59 days per year. This may primarily affect farmers who have their own source of drinking water (e.g., a well) and provide that drinking water to contract labor. For the most part, the primary impact will require farms to sample for microbiological and nitrate on a schedule established by the applicable agency (i.e., State or EPA Region).

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Arsenic in Drinking Water

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The Source Water Collaborative - A web forum about where America's safe drinking water begins - the lakes, streams, rivers and aquifers we tap for public water systems.

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Your Water, Your Decision - A guide for local officials to connect with best practices, people, and other resources that can help them protect their sources of drinking water.
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Sole Source Aquifer Protection

EPA defines a sole or principal source aquifer as one which supplies at least 50 percent of the drinking water consumed in the area overlying the aquifer. These areas can have no alternative drinking water source(s) which could physically, legally, and economically supply all those who depend upon the aquifer for drinking water. For convenience, all designated sole or principal source aquifers are referred to as "sole source aquifers" (SSA).

The Sole Source Aquifer program prohibits Federal financial assistance (any grant, contract, loan guarantee, or otherwise) for any project, including agricultural projects, that may result in contamination to the aquifer and create a hazard to public heath. Proposed Federal financially assisted projects with the potential to contaminate designated sole source aquifers are subject to EPA review. Currently, there are 73 areas designated as protected sole source aquifers.

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Source Water Protection Programs

The Safe Drinking Water Act, as amended in 1996, emphasizes two new key elements in source water protection: a clear State lead in program development and management, and a strong ethic of public participation. In addition to the intrinsic benefits of high-quality water and reduced treatment costs, a public water system with a source water protection program may be eligible for other benefits, such as possible regulatory flexibility under existing as well as future rules.  The Source Water Protection program includes:

-- Comprehensive State Ground Water Protection Programs
-- Sole Source Aquifer Program
-- Wellhead Protection Program

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Wellhead Protection

If an agricultural establishment or other agribusiness has an on-site water source (well) that qualifies as a public non-community drinking water system, the facility must take the steps required by the state/tribe to protect the wellhead from contaminants. A wellhead protection area is the surface and subsurface area surrounding a water well or well field, supplying a public water system, through which contaminants are reasonably likely to move toward and reach such a water well or well field.

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