U.S. Water News Online
WASHINGTON -- The Water Science and Technology Board of the National Research Council (NRC) has completed a study of the safety of drinking water in the nation's small communities.
The report, Safe Water from Every Tap, both identifies problems facing small water utilities in the U.S. and outlines a three-part strategy for improving those services. According to NRC officials, the report will be available from the National Academy Press in late December.
The report concludes that water service to small communities -- those serving 10,000 people or less -- are in great need of improvement. Squeezed by financial pressures of serving a small number of customers and having to observe increasingly stringent regulations, many of these systems cannot afford either the equipment or the qualified operators needed to ensure that drinking water is safe.
Such small systems serve more than a fifth of the U.S. population, yet because of these unaddressed problems, they are much more vulnerable to outbreaks of waterborne disease than are larger systems.
According to the report, in a recent 26-month period, more than one in five community water systems of all sizes failed to meet safe drinking water standards for microbial contamination. Over the past two decades, contaminated drinking water from public systems caused nearly 600 reported outbreaks of waterborne diseases, and many more episodes were probably undetected or unreported.
To address these problems, the report concludes, small water utilities must improve their operations in three critical areas: they must have effective water treatment technologies; they must have an institutional structure that ensures their financial stability; and their operators must be trained in all aspects of water system maintenance and management.
In addition, NRC researchers recommend that states encourage the sustainability of small water systems by requiring them to assess their short-term and long-term ability to provide adequate and safe water. States should provide operating permits only to those utilities that have completed performance appraisals satisfactorily. Where performance appraisals reveal problems, the states should help resolve them.
The federal government, likewise, can play a supportive role in the restructuring that is needed by limiting financial assistance for drinking water systems to those states with official performance appraisal programs, the report suggests. This will ensure that federal funds are not used to prop up unsustainable systems.
If a water system cannot satisfy or complete a performance appraisal, the report concludes, it should restructure by delegating some or all of its responsibilities to another entity, such as another utility or a regional water authority. Federal state, and local governments should provide incentives to encourage organizations to assume responsibilities from unsustainable small water systems.
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