Drinking water in the United States is safe and of high quality most of the time in most places. But public confidence regarding drinking-water quality has been shaken recently by a series of high-visibility crises that have resulted in temporary drinking-water-system closures and do-not-use advisories. These high-profile crises highlight the long-term, national challenges to maintaining high-quality drinking water, resulting particularly from continuing and legacy pollution of source waters and an aging infrastructure that is in need of significant repair and modernization.
As part of the Administration’s response to concerns about the safety of the Nation’s drinking water, underscored by the revelations about lead in tap water in Flint, Michigan, in March 2016, President Obama asked his President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) to investigate how science and technology (S&T) could more effectively help ensure the safety of the Nation’s drinking water. In parallel, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been working to identify and clarify policy, regulatory, and communication mechanisms to ensure all Americans have access to this critically important resource.
Today, PCAST released the recommendations and executive summary of the upcoming full report on safe drinking water, and EPA released its Drinking Water Action Plan. These two documents together complement one another and constitute a comprehensive examination of the science, technology, and policy of drinking water. PCAST’s near-term recommendations focus on monitoring drinking-water contaminants, using data analytics on drinking-water systems, increasing data collection with citizen science, and educating a technologically advanced water-treatment workforce. For the long-term, PCAST recommends that the Federal government coordinate its research and development on drinking water, create mechanisms for developing next-generation technologies and demonstration projects, and support more comprehensive comparative–risk-assessment methods and capacity.
The EPA Drinking Water Action Plan identifies activities that will bring together Federal, state, and local governments; communities; water utilities; and more to take action in six priority areas. Those areas range from initiatives for regional partnerships to strengthening transparency and public education on drinking water safety.
PCAST soon will release its full report, and we hope these two documents will set a direction for the Nation that ensures all Americans have safe drinking water, all the time.
Rosina Bierbaum, PhD and Christine Cassel, MD are PCAST members and the co-chairs of the PCAST working group on S&T for safe drinking water.