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Association of California Water Agencies

Carol M. Browner, Administrator
Environmental Protection Agency
Remarks Prepared for Delivery
Association of California Water Agencies

                        Palm Springs, CA
                        December 3, 1998
     Thank you Gene. I applaud ACWA for its nearly 90 years of work on behalf of clean, safe, healthy drinking water in California. What a wonderful opportunity this is -- to be here with ACWA members on this important day for drinking water in America.

     This morning, President Clinton announced two new public health standards to strengthen drinking water protections for 140 million Americans -- and meet the challenges of the 21st century.

     These standards -- the first issued under the new Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1996 -- will protect against Cryptosporidium, other disease-causing microbes, and potentially harmful byproducts of the water treatment process.

     I want to thank ACWA, and those of you who worked diligently to help craft these standards. Because of your hard work, your willingness to stay at the table for six years to ensure we got it right, because of your expertise -- not only will millions of Americans receive safer water today, but we have laid the groundwork for meeting the drinking water challenges of tomorrow. Thank you.

     It's been nearly 25 years since we passed the Safe Drinking Water Act. And we've made great progress. Today, this nation has one of the cleanest, safest water supplies in the world. Eighty five percent of this country's tapwater fully meets our tough federal standards. Since 1993, 10 million more Americans are receiving water from utilities reporting no violations of federal standards.

     But we must remain ever-vigilant. We must work to ensure that all Americans and all American communities have safe drinking water all of the time. And as new threats arise, we must address them swiftly and effectively. That's why these new standards are so important. They address new and emerging health threats.     One of these threats is the very thing that has enabled us to supply clean drinking water in the first place -- disinfection chemicals. As many of you are aware, studies have shown that these chemicals can react with organic matter in the water to form unintended byproducts,  some of which cause cancer and birth defects in laboratory animals.

     And now we have more reason for concern -- a recent California study showing possible links to miscarriages in humans, a link that we're still investigating.

     The new standard for disinfection chemicals announced today will continue the action many of you have already taken to reduce exposure to the byproducts. It will reduce exposure nationwide by 25 percent, protecting millions of Americans.

     The other threat, as you are well aware, are certain microbial pathogens, such as Cryptosporidium. You all remember 1993 -- as many as 100 deaths in Milwaukee linked to this pathogen. Four hundred thousand became ill. Four thousand were hospitalized. None of us can forget.

     We've had outbreaks in Nevada, Oregon, and Georgia over the past several years -- a serious threat to people with weakened immune systems. This new microbiological standard will improve treatment procedures, mainly building on existing technologies to protect 60 million Americans.

     Under both standards, nearly 14,000 water systems across the country -- including the ones most vulnerable to Cryptosporidium contamination -- will provide improved protections.

     But there is always the question of cost. How can we pay for these upgrades, these new protections? Well first, to help provide needed resources, the President is releasing $775 million through the state revolving loan fund. These are low-interest loans to help communities in all 50 states upgrade their water treatment systems. California will receive nearly $81 million from the revolving fund in 1999.

       Second, because of the technical expertise you provided as we developed these standards, we were able to get an extra measure of protection for the least cost. As a result, these standards can be achieved with minimal expense to utilities and the consumer -- a wonderful example of our economy hand in hand with our environment and health.

     Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the President has been working to make our water even safer. Last August, he announced in San Francisco our Consumer Confidence Reports -- annual reports from water utilities to consumers on the health of their water system.

     Next year, consumers everywhere in America will start receiving the reports in their water bills -- what contaminants are in their water and where they come from, the amount of contamination and how it might affect consumers' health, and where to go for more information.

     You know about these reports. California water systems have long provided them, in part because giving consumers information simply makes good business sense. With these reports, you have a ready forum for telling customers about the job you are doing every day to protect drinking water -- including the action you have already taken to reduce risks from Cryptosporidium and disinfection byproducts. And these reports help build the public's understanding  and support for the actions we must take to keep water supplies safe.

     We have much to be proud of today with these new standards. And this is just the beginning. California utilities -- through ACWA --  and EPA are spending millions of dollars to gather information for the next round of drinking water protections -- to ensure that we continue to root our decisions in the best available science, information, and testing.

     Your partnership has been invaluable. And we will draw from your willingness to work
together again as we address another potential health threat: MTBE. As I suspect you are well aware, MTBE is a chemical added to gasoline to make it burn cleaner, but which has been found leaking from some storage tanks and into some water supplies.

     MTBE and other oxygenates in reformulated gasoline have provided enormous air quality health benefits for millions of Americans. But it is a potential health threat in water -- and we must address this problem effectively.

     First, any petroleum product in our water supplies is unacceptable. Where there's MTBE, there must be gasoline. We have set new standards for underground storage tanks, and tank owners will be required to upgrade in order to meet the standards or close their tanks down by the end of this year. That means in the next few weeks. In California, it will be illegal to sell gasoline from a tank that fails to meet our new standards. We will continue to work with the states to foster full compliance with these standards and to enforce them to ensure that our water supplies remain safe.

     Second, EPA is working with the oil industry to develop a new testing program to assess the potential health effects of all gasolines -- conventional and reformulated.  Every water utility should have the information necessary to protect its supplies from gasoline threats.

     Third, we are convening a blue ribbon panel of experts -- scientists, public health experts, industry officials, water utilities, local and state governments -- to learn more about the very complex issues surrounding MTBE and other oxygenates in fuel. In about six months, this panel will report its findings to me, including specific recommendations on how to ensure public health protection and continued improvements in air and water quality. We recognize the important role MTBE has played in cleaning our air, and we want to ensure that water supplies are clean and healthy, as well.

    We're taking our responsibility seriously to protect the water, to protect the air, and to protect public health. But we need your help to fill in the knowledge gap, to share information, so that we can make the best decisions possible.

     Whenever I become daunted about the challenges we face to our drinking water -- new health threats, encroaching development that leads to more polluted runoff, loss of wetlands, scarce supplies -- I find a great measure of encouragement in the progress we made with the Bay/Delta Accords. This was progress against so many obstacles, so many odds.

     We already can see great results -- new state water quality standards, more reliable and common-sense water allocations to meet everyone's needs faster and more efficiently, projects to restore vital fisheries. We've even seen signs of greater investor confidence in California's future because of these accords.

     But most importantly, we have Calfed -- the state and federal government working hand in hand with farmers, environmentalists, cities, water utilities, and all the other stakeholders to find long-term solutions that work for everyone.

     No one could have believed this progress would be possible a decade ago. We have made these great strides because we have chosen to work with each other, not against each other.

     But now we stand at a critical juncture. We have a draft plan with alternative long-term solutions -- and we have difficult choices to make. This is our test. No solution is perfect. No solution is our silver bullet. Do we choose to go our separate ways and backslide into water wars once again? Or do we redouble our efforts, and commit to finding solutions together?

     I believe the best solutions are not the ones where one party triumphs over another. The best solutions are the lasting, durable, and truly workable ones -- the solutions that are crafted by consensus and engineered with ingenuity.

     Time and time again, you have proven this. Time and time again, this administration has proven this. If we stick to the process, we can prove it again -- and our farms will continue to flourish, wildlife will thrive, and our drinking water needs will be met.

     The Clinton/Gore Administration is committed to helping you provide clean, safe drinking water to the American people -- through our Clean Water Action Plan to finish the job of cleaning up and restoring the nation's water, through our reforms under the Safe Drinking Water Act, through a strengthened Clean Water Act, through building the partnerships that will bring about solutions that work.

     Together, we can meet the very difficult challenges facing us in the coming century. Indeed, working arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder is our only hope for a future of clean water for every American.     Thank you.