Water Quality Reports Go Online but Access for Many Likely to Decline

After months of waiting, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a disappointing memorandum allowing water companies to switch from mail to all-electronic delivery of annual drinking water quality reports. The memo fails to set clear standards for electronic notification and delivery and makes it likely that segments of the public will have less access to these reports.

Water utilities have been mailing water quality reports to customers annually for almost two decades. These reports contain information on sources of public drinking water, violations of water quality standards, and possible contaminants. While electronic delivery of these reports is not necessarily a bad idea, EPA offers only suggestions, not requirements, about how water companies can ensure that all customers continue to have access to information about their drinking water.

For instance, EPA recommends (but does require) that water companies determine which customers have access to the Internet and which do not and continue to deliver a paper copy of the report to customers without Internet access. Given that almost one-third of American households are without broadband Internet access at home, this should have been a requirement. And customers least likely to have online access – those in poor and rural communities – are among those most likely to face deteriorating water quality. Without a mandate to reach out to these customers, many may be left in the dark about potential drinking water risks.

The failure to require such information strategies in EPA's memo cannot be an oversight. The Center for Effective Government (formerly OMB Watch), along with 14 other organizations, filed comments to the agency, highlighting ways to strengthen the drinking water quality reports that consumers receive from water utilities. Our comments lay out steps for EPA to take to ensure that electronic delivery works for consumers. In addition, we launched an action alert on the issue; more than 700 consumers submitted their own comments in response.

With so many voices calling for changes to the proposed policy, it is disappointing that EPA did not strengthen its proposal with clear requirements. Water quality rules should improve drinking water, but because of the agency’s memo, many people may not be able to monitor whether their water utilities are making progress.

EPA will host a webinar explaining the memorandum for the public on Jan. 17th. To sign up, go to https://www3.gotomeeting.com/register/888824022.

Image by flickr user zeus1642, used under a Creative Commons license.

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