Report Finds Deteriorating Infrastructure, Pollution Threaten Municipal Drinking Water Supplies

NRDC report on 19 cities finds that proposed Bush administration Clean Water Act rollbacks would exacerbate tap water problems

WASHINGTON (June 11, 2003) -- Deteriorating water works, pollution, and outdated treatment technology are combining to deliver drinking water that might pose health risks to many residents in 19 of America's largest cities, according to a report issued today. Bush administration proposals to weaken the Clean Water Act and other laws would exacerbate these risks, the study warned.

The report, "What's On Tap? Grading Drinking Water in U.S. Cities," by NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), reviewed tap water quality in 19 municipalities, focusing on the effects of aging infrastructure and source water pollution. The report rated three problem areas -- water quality and compliance, source water protection, and right-to-know compliance -- on a scale of excellent, good, fair, poor and failing for 2000 and 2001. For water quality in 2001, only Chicago rated excellent, five cities rated good, eight rated fair, and five rated poor. None failed. (See the table below for rankings. The entire report is available on the NRDC website.)

"Most Americans take it for granted that their tap water is pure and their water infrastructure is safe," said Erik Olson, the report's principal author. "Our report shows that they shouldn't."

The report found apparent or confirmed violations of enforceable tap water rules in five cities over the two years reviewed (Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Fresno and Phoenix), and violations of non-enforceable "action levels" or "health advisories" in many other cities. The report authors concluded that infrastructure and other water supply problems in these and other municipalities might pose health risks to some residents. Although the report does not advise residents to stop drinking tap water, it cited medical experts who suggest that pregnant women and parents of infants consult with health care providers. Echoing recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NRDC also urged that people who have serious immune system problems (such as those on chemotherapy or people with HIV/AIDS) consult with health care providers regarding the safety of their tap water.

"Clean drinking water has been one of the major public health triumphs of the past 100 years," said Dr. David Ozonoff, a professor at Boston University's School of Public Health. "We've figured out how to build very efficient water delivery systems. But these systems can either provide safe drinking water, or deliver poisons and harmful organisms into every home, school and workplace. One misstep can lead to disaster, so we must vigorously protect our watersheds and use the best technology to purify our tap water."

The report found that recent Bush administration actions threaten the purity of U.S. tap water. For example, the administration has proposed to limit the scope of the Clean Water Act, refused to strengthen tap water standards or issue new ones for contaminants, and has refused to reinstate a Superfund law provision that forces corporations to pay into a fund to clean up hazardous waste sites.

"The Bush administration is more concerned about protecting corporate polluters than protecting public health," said Olson. "Proposals to end Clean Water Act protection for most streams, creeks and wetlands will jeopardize city efforts to provide pure drinking water for its residents."

The report also evaluated efforts to protect lakes, streams and groundwater serving as drinking water sources. Seattle has adopted excellent protection measures, four cities had good protection, four had fair protection, seven had poor protection, and Fresno failed.

Additionally, the study reviewed each of the cities' mandated right-to-know reports, which are designed to inform residents about water system problems. Although NRDC did find some informative reports, many were little more than public relations efforts that downplayed key information about contaminants and the problems they cause. No city received an excellent rating for its report. NRDC rated eight good, six fair, three poor, and two -- Newark and Phoenix -- failed.

To protect drinking water, the report recommended that states and cities upgrade drinking water treatment facilities, invest in water conservation measures, and replace or update pipes and water distribution system components. The report also recommended that state and municipal authorities adopt standards, and purchase land or easements -- which restrict land use to safeguard water -- to protect watersheds and areas above aquifers draining into water supplies.


The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 550,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Related NRDC Pages
What's On Tap: Grading Drinking Water in U.S. Cities
Overview of Report Findings
FAQ: Tap Water Quality and Safety
Press Release, California Early Report Release, Oct. 2002