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A New Approach to Protecting Drinking Water

2013 September 25
Cynthia Giles

September 25, 2013
10:00 am EDT

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.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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2 Responses leave one →
  1. Enviro Equipment, Inc. permalink
    October 11, 2013

    In addition to your innovative approach to protecting drinking water from pollutants via using a point system to prioritize I offenders, we are pleased to see that you were also targeting private wells as well with your recent partnership with the National Ground Water Association to educate private well owners on protecting their drinking water as well. In fact, we did our best to get the word out to our employees and customers about the website ( with which they can access information and tools to better protect their wells.

  2. ChadC permalink
    October 26, 2013

    This “promise of enforcement” approach seems promising in handling a variety of environmental issues. By saving the money from using this more efficient method, more attention can be placed on fixing the more difficult problems. My personal work has been focused on the best techniques currently used by agencies that make their work more cost effective and efficient. EPA’s point system targets the greatest offenders to focus more on the worst cases. Since the problem is so widespread and involves so many individuals, it is easy for some violations to go undetected for long periods of time. By compiling the degrees of violation and progress over time, the difficulties of detection can potentially be overcome.

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