The Safe Drinking Water Act can and must help Wisconsin
Dec 15, 2016
It was on December 16, 1974, when President Gerald Ford signed the Safe Drinking Water Act into law. Just four years after the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and two years after the passage of the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act was an important law that gave Americans national, human health-based protections for the water we drink.
Because our water resources know no state boundaries and because what happens upstream impacts those who live downstream, national rules and funding were needed to apply those clean drinking water standards fairly across states. The Safe Drinking Water Act is what allowed the federal government to ensure that drinking water systems in every state had at least a minimum and modern standard of safety in what comes out of our taps.
While the focus of the law was mainly on public drinking water systems, it also gave the EPA the power to intervene when an underground source of drinking water is contaminated and presents an imminent and substantial threat to peoples’ health. It gives the EPA the power to step in, investigate and even provide water if the state or local governments have not or will not protect the source of drinking water.
In 2014, concerns over contaminated drinking water wells in Kewaunee County, Wisconsin were reaching a breaking point. Kewaunee County became the perfect storm of dense agricultural activity, livestock operations’ manure waste heavily spread on thin soil and fractured karst bedrock, and results of university studies of rural drinking water wells that showed over a third of residents’ wells were contaminated with bacteria, nitrates or both. Citizens had done everything they could. They turned to their local government for help and asked the state Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to monitor and enforce environmental protection laws.
That’s why in October of 2014, Midwest Environmental Advocates joined Clean Wisconsin, the Environmental Integrity Project, Midwest Environmental Defense Center, Kewaunee CARES and the Clean Water Action Council of Northeast Wisconsin to formally ask the EPA for emergency action under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Since then, the EPA pressured the DNR to hold stakeholder meetings which produced a set of recommendations and policy suggestions for improving groundwater protections. While the Governor has taken action to call for manure digester technology proposals for the county, citizens continue to await immediate relief and again appealed to the DNR's Board this week for help in Kewaunee County. We’re still waiting for the government to expand the state’s well compensation program for families to pay for newer and deeper wells or to directly provide clean drinking water to Kewaunee County residents with contaminated wells.
On the anniversary of the Safe Drinking Water Act, we should celebrate how far we’ve come. In the same way the Clean Water Act helped our country prevent environmental disasters like the Cuyahoga River fire, the Safe Drinking Water Act is responsible for Americans’ drinking water security. We’re privileged to live in a country where we can drink water from our tap without worrying about Typhoid Fever or Cholera.
But we need the Safe Drinking Water Act to work harder for rural Wisconsinites when bacteria and nitrates from agricultural pollution contaminate drinking water wells at a level that threatens families’ health. This kind of pollution is preventable, but it’s going to take more leadership.
The Safe Drinking Water Act provides EPA with authority to step in when drinking water is at risk. But each state has the power to do better without relying on federal intervention. Real leadership makes progress and moves beyond the minimum of expectations, and right now, Wisconsin could use some leadership in preventing pollution. It will require policy changes, investments in infrastructure, and incentives for technologies that put protecting human health and the environment above the bottom line.