Reliable access to safe, clean drinking water is something most people in the United States take for granted. We turn on our tap and out comes clean water! We brush our teeth, wash our clothes, cook our meals and bathe our children. In the United States, it’s abundant, reliable and relatively cheap. Even kings of the past didn’t have such luxury.
How did we get to this healthy, safe place – and more importantly, how do we stay here?
As far back as 400 B.C. Hippocrates recommended boiling and straining water. A 200 B.C. Sanskrit manuscript instructed: "It is good to keep water in copper vessels, to expose it to sunlight and filter it through charcoal." The Romans and other civilizations began using sand filter for drinking water.
Drinking water treatment continued to evolve, but sporadically. In 1840, cholera epidemics claimed 8,000 lives in New York City and 5,000 in New Orleans. A London cholera outbreak in 1854 was traced to a single contaminated well.
By 1860 major U.S. cities and towns had over 400 water systems, and by 1900 over 3,000. But the water often was unsafe and caused disease.
Sand filtration and chlorination treatment to address biological contamination began in the early 1900s, and in 1912 U.S. Congress passed the Public Health Service Act, authorizing water pollution surveys especially related to human health.
The Secretary of the Treasury adopted the first standards in 1914, which introduced the concept of maximum contaminant limits. Cholera and typhoid fever cases saw rapid declines – in 1900, there were about 76,000 cases. By the 1920s it decreased to about 35,000, and by 2006 there were only 353 cases.
In the 1940s and ’50s, widespread use of new pesticides and other man-made chemicals raised concerns about chemical contaminants, especially related to unknown, long-term effects on human health and the environment.
In 1962 the Public Health Service set minimum standards for all public drinking water supplies under the Federal Water Pollution Control Act. In 1972 it was amended as the Clean Water Act, aiming to restore and maintain surface water quality by regulating contaminant discharge into “waters of the U.S.”
The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was passed 1974. It expanded the federal role in state’s safe drinking water by setting enforceable standards for all community water systems, and setting injection well protections for underground sources of drinking water. The SDWA compelled the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set national drinking water standards for both naturally-occurring and man-made contaminants, and placed the primary authority for administering and enforcing those standards at the state level.
In the oil and gas world, regulations relating to waste water disposal and water handling have helped drive better industry practices – practices that are now widely adopted standards. And it’s not as if regulators did it singlehandedly – they didn’t. The American Petroleum Institute and other groups have played their part. The efforts from all groups have combined to provide today’s regulatory framework that effectively protects our drinking water sources.
But what does the future hold?
Opportunities for partnership continue, and the challenges are many and complex. Our aging water infrastructure needs replacing, and new chemicals and technologies pose very real human health challenges.
In the oil and gas sector, hydraulic fracturing and wastewater handling remain hot topics. There are equally challenging topics across all industrial sectors. Yet our common goal persists – clean, safe, available drinking water now and for our future generations.
As we move into our future, it remains clear that when it comes to safe drinking water, regulation matters!
(Editor’s note: Dan Jackson is a regulatory specialist with Impact Geo Consulting Ltd., Louisville, Colo.)