Contact Us


Speeches - By Date


Administrator Gina McCarthy, Remarks Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the Safe Drinking Water Act, As Prepared

Happy Anniversary. Hi, everybody. It’s great to be here. I want to thank you for all the hard work you do to protect clean water in this country, and know we’ll ask you to do more hard work in the years ahead.

I was in Milwaukee recently and got to visit Lakefront Brewery, where they use 20,000 gallons of water every day to make 4,000 gallons of beer. They told me the water in Milwaukee is perfect for brewing, with just the right balance of minerals.

I don’t doubt Milwaukee’s water is special—and the beer was delicious. But I kept thinking about how the tap water is clean enough to drink just about everywhere in the country. That’s because of the Safe Drinking Water Act and your persistent work to implement it.

Most of you know it wasn’t always this way in Milwaukee, or in many other places in the U.S. Before the law passed 40 years ago, 40 percent of our nation’s drinking water systems failed to meet even basic health standards. Even in the early ‘90’s, before the 1996 amendments to the law passed, Milwaukee experienced one of the worst drinking water outbreaks in our nation’s history.

But thanks to the Safe Drinking Water Act and dedicated drinking water professionals across the U.S., Lakefront now knows the water is safe to use. The law protects Lakefront’s 107 jobs, plus tens of millions of others across the country. And it gives businesses of all sizes the certainty they need to operate day after day. That’s what Walter Mondale and other Senate leaders envisioned when they wrote the Safe Drinking Water Act 40 years ago.

Today, we almost take safe drinking water for granted. It’s such a basic need—and the Safe Drinking Water Act has been such a success—we sometimes lose sight of how far we’ve come. Americans drink over 1 billion glasses of tap water every day. We enjoy the cleanest drinking water in the world, with more than 90 percent of our citizens receiving water that meets all standards, all the time. We owe that accomplishment to this incredible law, and to your work at the state and local level and on innovation.

Clean and reliable water is the foundation of what makes America great. It’s what lets our children grow up healthy, keeps our schools and hospitals running, and fuels our economy. So today, I want to talk about what it will take to keep our water safe and reliable for our kids, our businesses, and our communities for the next 40 years and beyond.

From power plants and manufacturers to local brewers, companies across America depend on clean water. One of my favorite experiences as Administrator was being in the room with Coke and Pepsi executives who were fighting—not against each other, but against climate change. Major companies go where water will be clean and plentiful well into the future—bringing thousands of jobs with them.

We’ve entered a new era. Climate change is making our jobs harder—meaning our legacy water challenges will require new solutions. But our efforts are making a difference. The Department of Commerce found that the U.S. environmental technology industry generated $320 billion in revenue, and employed 1.7 million Americans in 2011 alone. There’s a reason water technology makes up the biggest piece of that pie. More than ever, water is gold. It’s the lifeblood of our nation’s economy.

That said, to face new challenges and continue to provide safe, reliable drinking water to the American people, we have to focus on each step from source to tap. We can’t afford to look at water issues in isolation.

Protecting water is a lot like raising a kid. You can’t just show up in your child’s late teens and expect them to be healthy. You have to nurture them from the very beginning to set them up to be safe and healthy their whole lives.

The same is true of our drinking water—we can’t just treat it at the end of the line, and expect it to be as clean, reliable, and affordable as we need it to be. We have to protect it from source to tap.

We’re in a challenging situation: EPA estimates the U.S. needs $384 billion dollars in drinking water infrastructure investment—for maintenance, repairs, and replacement. Meanwhile, budgets have been tight at all levels of government, and it doesn’t look like that’ll change anytime soon. So we’re looking to integrate our work across the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, and we need new approaches to infrastructure, partnerships, and source water protection.

EPA is promoting integrated planning so cities can sequence wastewater and stormwater projects to get the biggest bang for their buck. This fall, we offered technical assistance to more than 20 cities to jumpstart that process. And when we do our jobs well on stormwater and wastewater, it’s is an investment in drinking water quality as well.

The success of our drinking water state revolving fund investments is unparalleled. We’ve provided over $26 billion dollars in financing to more than 10,000 projects since 1997. The SRFs are more than direct loan programs. They’re job creators and public health protectors, and these investments pay hefty dividends. But we need to do more, and we need to be more creative. To build on our success, we’re working more closely than ever with states, federal agencies, and the private sector to leverage new funding sources.

At the local level, mayors are on the front lines—setting sewer and water rates and building infrastructure. They, too, know that tackling water challenges requires a game change. That’s why cities are embracing green infrastructure—capturing rain where it falls rather than paying to treat it only on the back end. And green infrastructure improves the appearance of cities, boosts property values, and attracts private investment. Talk about a win-win.

And let’s not forget source water protection. The original Safe Drinking Water Act left out this crucial piece of the puzzle, focusing only on the water that came out of our taps. But as the years went by, we realized it’s a lot cheaper to protect source water in the first place, than to rely on expensive treatment on the back end alone.

That’s why the 1996 Safe Drinking Water Act amendments made sure states assess their drinking water sources, and the factors that threaten them. Every state completed that step over a decade ago. But not all of them took action based on that information. We need to go further. We’ve seen two stark reminders this year of why source water protection is so important.

In Charleston, West Virginia, the local water utility didn’t learn that the chemical MCHM had spilled into drinking water intakes until folks noticed a strange odor. The governor estimated the spill cost the state $70 million dollars. We need to do more.

In Toledo, Ohio, algae in Lake Erie produced a toxin that made it into the city’s water supply. This is where climate change is really starting to come into play, worsening the effects of nutrient pollution and leading to more harmful algal blooms. Local business came to a standstill and nearly half a million people were left without safe drinking water for two days. We need to do more.

EPA continues to coordinate efforts to protect America’s drinking water at the source and to address new and legacy challenges. We convene the source water collaborative, a partnership of 25 organizations united to protect drinking water sources. And EPA has taken an important step to protect headwaters and small streams from pollution with our proposed clean water rule, which will reduce the need for expensive treatment. Our public comment period ended last month, and the feedback we’ve received shows how important this is for everyone.

That’s why the organizations here are launching a call to action—asking utilities, states, federal agencies, and local governments to step up to protect source water. I encourage all of us to act. Utilities can partner with landowners and businesses, and make sure they have plans in place with emergency responders. Local governments can help with land use planning to protect water where it counts most. States can help update source water assessments and act on them to address the greatest threats to their drinking water.

And federal agencies can work better together. At EPA, we’re working with USDA Rural Development to better serve the 97% of our nation’s water systems with fewer than 10,000 customers. We’re offering specially tailored technical assistance and financing options for rural water systems, helping make sure they have the resources and expertise they need.

When it comes to dealing with climate impacts, EPA works with state and local governments to help them weave climate change into their decisions—like a climate resilience tool to help drinking water utilities adapt to climate impacts on their facilities.

After Hurricane Sandy destroyed drinking water and wastewater treatment plants on the east coast in October of 2012, EPA made nearly $95 million available to New York and New Jersey to help make drinking water systems more resilient to extreme weather. And we’re working with states and disaster recovery agencies to do the same in other states—before a storm hits.

There are a lot of great efforts going on. When we all work together, we can adapt to new circumstances and protect our most precious resource for our children and our communities. You guys know better than anyone, protecting drinking water has never been easy, and it’s not getting any easier. But when we focus on infrastructure investments, building partnerships, and protecting source water—we can continue to make a difference.

Today, as always, we’ll have to work together. And when we do, the Safe Drinking Water Act will protect future generations for decades to come. Here’s to the next 40 years.