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The Missing Improvements to the EPA’s Water Quality Reports

Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, water utilities are required to provide annual drinking water quality reports to consumers. These reports, usually attached to a customer’s water bill, contain information on any contaminants in the water, any violations of water quality standards, and sources of public drinking water. But a new proposal being considered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, could actually reduce public access to these water quality reports.

Water Quality Reports

The water quality reports, known as Consumer Confidence Reports, describe a system’s water sources, risks to the water system, contaminants detected in the water supply that violate EPA’s health standards, and the potential effects of any violations. The reports also list other violations that occurred in the past year and provide educational information about water contaminants.

The purpose of these reports is to raise public awareness about possible risks to the public’s drinking water; however, they have been criticized for being overly technical, complex, and difficult for the general public to understand or act upon. For instance, a 2003 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC, surveyed 19 cities and found several problems with the reports, including misleading claims and omitted information.

As required by a current EPA rule, community water systems typically mail or otherwise directly deliver one copy of the water quality reports to each customer. However, the requirement for direct delivery may be waived by the governor of a state for water systems serving fewer than 10,000 persons. Most water companies mail paper copies of the reports to paying customers, usually in their water bills. In addition, water companies are required to make good-faith efforts to notify consumers who do not directly receive water bills, such as apartment tenants and workers in an office building. Large water systems are required to post their reports online, as well to provide individual reports to customers.

EPA began reviewing the rule on water quality reports last year as part of the retrospective review of rules ordered by the Obama administration in January 2011. Water utilities have been complaining about the cost of sending out reports to their customers for some time. While there is no prohibition against electronic delivery of the reports, it is unclear how e-delivery meets the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

EPA’s Proposal

On Sept. 11, EPA released a notice of a public meeting and request for public comments on a new proposal that would allow water utilities to electronically deliver water quality reports to the public. The proposal assesses various electronic methods for water companies to meet the Safe Drinking Water Act requirement. For example, one possible method would allow the water company to mail bill-paying customers a notification with a website address where the reports can be viewed; the notification could be a link on the consumer’s water bill, an item in a community newsletter, or an insert or postcard in the water bill. Other proposed methods include: e-mailing the reports directly to consumers as an electronic file attachment (e.g., portable document format (PDF)) or e-mailing the reports to consumers with the text and tables of the report inserted into the body of the message.

Although the proposal lays out various options for electronic delivery, it fails to provide clear standards for water companies to follow. Without clear standards in place, the proposed changes could actually weaken public access to the information on local water supplies required by the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The public cannot be compelled to have an e-mail address or to make that address available, so there is no guarantee that a water utility would be able to send out reports to their customers’ e-mail addresses. Other potential problems are a lack of software compatibility to open links and e-mail spam filters.

Additionally, just printing website addresses on customer water bills is problematic for several reasons. For one, if the links are buried in the fine print of a routine water bill, very few people are likely to notice the link and visit the site that contains the report. Moreover, almost a third of American households are still without at-home broadband Internet access; those without access are likely to reside in low-income urban neighborhoods and rural areas. In short, those citizens unable to easily track information about the quality of their water supplies are exactly those populations we would expect to be most at risk of having contaminants in their water.

Since EPA’s rule requires these water quality reports to be “directly delivered” to all customers, the proposal to deliver the information via the Internet would seem to violate a key provision of the agency’s own standard. Though all water companies should be required to post water quality reports online, utilities should not be able to void the requirement to add water quality information to customer bills once a year unless they know each consumer will receive the reports electronically.

The Real Issue: Making the Reports Easier to Understand

While EPA is focused on responding to industry complaints, the agency has missed the key problem with the reports: the lax design standards and resulting difficulty for the public to understand the information contained within them. EPA’s review of the rule, intended to improve outdated and underperforming regulations, is the perfect opportunity to improve the readability of the reports.

Staff could design a standard template and test it with the lay public to ensure people understand the information contained in the report. EPA could also develop visual indicators in a kind of simplified dashboard display. EPA already uses straightforward indicators that facilitate a better understanding of complex information, like color-coded air quality warnings, miles-per-gallon ratings for cars, and energy usage labels for appliances. Such indicators should be adapted to measures of water quality.

To achieve these reforms, EPA would need to revise the water quality reports rule and update the templates that water systems use. It should consider ways to ensure water utilities are consistently delivering accurate and accessible information to the American people. Finally, EPA should conduct a public education campaign to raise awareness about the reports so consumers understand why this information is important to them.

Take Action

You can take action by telling the EPA to standardize and simplify water quality reports and deliver information to consumers by mail and online. Urge the EPA to create clearer and more stringent standards for electronic delivery of your water quality reports; require all water systems to post the water quality reports online; and redesign the reports so that it is easier for you and your family to understand the risks to your drinking water. The timeline is short, so urgent action is required – the agency is accepting comments until Oct. 11.

Sofia Plagakis is the Environmental Right to Know Policy Analyst at OMB Watch. This article is revised and cross-posted with permission from our partners at OMB Watch.

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