Happy 40th Anniversary to the Safe Drinking Water Act

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). While we in the water business sometimes have disagreements about regulations developed under the act, over the years we have seen significant improvements in public health as a result of SDWA requirements. A look at a bit of water treatment history puts the SDWA into perspective.

40-Year Timeline

Timeline (PDF, 20 KB)

The first use of chlorine to disinfect drinking water in the US was in 1908 in Jersey City, N.J. The first regulation of drinking water biological quality by the U.S. Public Health Service took place in 1914 and only applied to interstate facilities (trains and ships). Not until 1962 did the Public Health Service regulate the first 28 contaminants in drinking water, with the regulations being adopted by all the states. In response to some studies completed by the Public Health Service and events such as the Cuyahoga River in Ohio catching fire due to its pollutant content, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established by President Nixon in 1970. EPA's mission is to protect human health by safeguarding the air we breathe, water we drink and land on which we live.

In 1972, the Public Health Service released a study of treated water taken from the Mississippi River in which 36 chemicals of concern were detected. This set the stage for the development of the Safe Drinking Water Act, which was proposed in 1973 in Congress, and passed into law in 1974. The first rules written under the SDWA, the National Interim Primary Drinking Water Standards, focused on coliform and turbidity. Since 1975, new rules have been added with some frequency and the SDWA itself was amended in 1986. 

In response to new SDWA regulations, utilities continue to provide higher and higher quality drinking water to customers. In testimony to both the SDWA and water utilities across the nation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Academy of Engineering named water treatment as one of the most significant public health advancements of the 20th Century. As we move into the next decade of drinking water regulation and treatment, EPA and utilities should take pride in the results of the last 40 years of the SDWA, making this 40th anniversary one worth celebrating.

Sarah Clark, P.E., HDRSarah Clark, P.E., is a senior water project manager working out of our Denver office, who writes and edits our SDWA Newsletter. She has extensive experience in water treatment process engineering, regulatory compliance, and utility operations. She currently serves on the national AWWA Technical Advisory Work Group for Disinfection Byproducts and on the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment's Stakeholder Group for implementation of the Microbial and Disinfection Byproduct
Rule cluster.