40 Years of the Safe Drinking Water Act: The Small Systems Challenge

By Mindy Eisenberg, Protection Branch Chief

When I meet operators and managers of water systems from small cities and towns, I’m always impressed by the tremendous pride they take in their local water services.

Today, more than 94% of the country’s 156,000 drinking water systems are small, serving fewer than 3,300 people. But maintaining those systems can be a real challenge. Having such a small customer base can make it tough to pay for needed repairs, hire and retain qualified operators or plan for future needs. Also, a large number of small water systems are actually schools, campgrounds or restaurants, so water service is not their primary function.

In 1996, the Safe Drinking Water Act was amended to create new programs with small systems in mind. Now we partner with states to help these small systems reliably provide safe drinking water to their customers.

One of the ways the Safe Drinking Water Act helps small systems is through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. Each year, we allocate funding to states, and then states use the money to finance drinking water infrastructure projects at low interest rates. States can also use some of these funds to provide training for operators and managers of small systems, help them with energy conservation and water efficiency, and implement source water protection programs.

We administer a national Training and Technical Assistance Grant for small drinking water systems. This year, we awarded over $12 million to technical assistance providers to help small systems with training and on-site technical assistance.

We also produce guides and tools for small drinking water systems. Projects include a software tool to track scheduled maintenance activities and develop a plan to manage their physical infrastructure (or assets); a series of fact sheets highlighting water and wastewater internships, community college programs and mentoring for new operators; and several fact sheets to help small systems with energy and water efficiency.

As we mark the 40th Anniversary of the Safe Drinking Water Act, we’re as committed as ever to helping small drinking water systems to deliver safe and reliable drinking water to their communities. Their operators and managers should be proud. Against some tough odds, they do a commendable job.

About the author: Mindy Eisenberg is the Chief of the Protection Branch in EPA’s Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water. Her branch is responsible for overseeing the Public Water System Supervision program, Tribal drinking water infrastructure program, Capacity Development program and Operator Certification program, as well as managing training and technical assistance grants to assist small systems.