A New Approach to Protecting Drinking Water

Cynthia Giles Cynthia Giles

Sometimes the best enforcement is the promise of enforcement.

This is the thinking behind a key element of Next Generation Compliance: Developing innovative enforcement strategies. The clear expectation of enforcement, combined with the commitment to follow-through, motivates compliance with rules that protect America’s air, water and land. We’ve known this for a while, but recently we’ve created new systems that allow us to prioritize the worst offenders and target our efforts, saving time and money, while becoming a more effective and transparent agency.

Take drinking water for example. For years, EPA, state and tribal authorities were exhausting resources pursuing public drinking water systems that were violating the Safe Drinking Water Act. We saw positive results, but with more than 156,000 public water systems with varying challenges unique to each system, it was an uphill battle. We put our heads together with state representatives to develop a new scoring system that identifies and prioritizes the most serious violators. Every three months, EPA tallies up points for unaddressed drinking water violations. Those with the highest scores are given six months to return to compliance or face enforcement.

This chart shows the decline in the number of public water systems with serious violations that can threaten public health.

This chart shows the decline in the number of public water systems with serious violations that can threaten public health.

The new strategy has produced strong results. It’s spurred a 74-percent drop nationally in the past three years in the number of public water systems with serious violations left unaddressed. And I’m particularly proud that in tribal communities where EPA is largely responsible for implementing the Safe Drinking Water Act, there’s been a 76-percent drop over the same three-year period.

This strategy also complements EPA’s renewed emphasis on maintaining accurate data and ensuring the transparency of monitoring and reporting systems. With the viable expectation of enforcement, drinking water systems are more likely to compile and report data in a timelier fashion.  And all violations and enforcement information is made available to the public at EPA’s Enforcement Compliance History Online website.

Protecting safe drinking water is a top priority for EPA. This drinking water system enforcement strategy offers a model for effective collaboration to ensure all Americans have water that is safe drink. When supported by monitoring and reporting processes that drive increased transparency, it embodies what Next Generation Compliance is all about.

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