Aging water systems in very small towns are not being properly monitored

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The United States is unique in that you can safely drink water out of any tap. But many small towns have trouble maintaining or replacing aging water systems. They get technical assistance and some funding from the federal government. But the Government Accountability Office has found a relative dearth of information to really tiny towns, those with less than 500 people. For more, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to the GAO’s director of natural resources and environment issues, Alfredo Gomez.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Gomez, Good to have you on.

Alfredo Gomez: Thanks for having me.

Tom Temin: So you are looking at EPAs assistance basically to these small towns,. I guess perhaps people didn’t realize the federal government has any involvement with very small communities water systems. Tell us the background here.

Alfredo Gomez: So there are about 27,000 very small community water systems and they’re serving about 4.6 million people. And these very small community systems actually make up more than half of all community water systems. So it’s quite a few of them. And as you noted, these communities face the challenge of meeting their drinking water needs, and it’s primarily because they lack financial resources that’s needed to replace their drinking water system, for example. They also have difficulty recruiting and maintaining staff. So yes, EPA has two programs that help the small communities. Also U. S. Department of Agriculture has two small programs as well that helps these small communities.

Tom Temin: So a very small community could have something as simple as a well that 15 people are connected to. That by federal definitions is a water system as opposed to just my own well, correct?

Alfredo Gomez: That’s right. So we were looking to see, you know, usually the conventional way that communities are provided water is through a central line treatment system. But in this review, we were looking at what are some alternative ways in which these communities air getting water and what’s known about that?

Tom Temin: What was your overall finding?

Alfredo Gomez: What we found is that there’s not a lot of information out there on the use of these alternative drinking water systems. But we did find a lot of examples, and as you mentioned already, one of the examples that communities use, for example, is they use what’s called a point of use device. So, for example, they set up filters the point where the water is going to be used for drinking or cooking, so you can imagine a filter being place at your faucet in your kitchen. And then, of course, you have to change that filter over a certain amount of time. But other examples that we found as well where communities use what’s called ultraviolet disinfection. So they’re using ultraviolet lighting lamps that are used to inactivate, for example, microorganisms. Or they also use what’s called a low pressure micro filtration membrane. So there’s a variety of different ways. What we were also trying to see was what’s known about the cost savings because one of the reasons why you want small communities to use these alternative water systems is because it’s a way for them to be more efficient to save money. And obviously that really depends on factors. So, for example, if a community is also looking to perhaps connect to a conventional system or connect to a central drinking water system, you have to look at the cost of that connection. How much pipe are you gonna need, how much money you’re gonna need in terms of electricity, for example. So there’s a variety of costs that are associated. The other thing is that geology and the climate also influences the water quality. So you can imagine, for example, Alaska communities where you have cold climate conditions and permafrost. You really have the challenge there of drilling groundwater well, so sometimes you can’t use a traditional water system so you have to look at other ways as well.

Tom Temin: Most people think of water systems as places behind fences with big pumps and tanks and professionals treating the water to make sure that it meets local and federal standards. In some cases though these local systems could be subject to whatever environmental runoff happens to be happening from a nearby farm. They could be in an open well that could be sabotaged. What about the safety issues and expertise issues for very small systems?

Alfredo Gomez: Sure, and so that’s where these two federal programs that are available for small communities. So EPA has two programs that help these communities in training, they provide technical assistance. The U. S. Department of Agriculture also has two other programs, they call them the Circuit Rider Programs. What these programs do is they help those communities come into compliance. So they help them with compliance assistance, they help them in monitoring and doing sampling requirements. They also provide assistance in helping them operate and maintain their system, and also with management and finance issues. You know, because these systems are so small, they don’t usually have the financial capacity or the expertise with certified operators. So these programs are available to help these communities deal with those compliance.

Tom Temin: Did you look at the effectiveness of those programs? Do the people served in general have potable water coming out of the tap?

Alfredo Gomez: So we also looked at the amount of money, for example, that these programs are providing. So we we were looking at the years from 2016 to 2018 and for these programs from EPA and USDA, they were providing a total of $63 million and then $96 million in technical assistance in training every year, so they aren’t providing a lot of support.

Tom Temin: But are they having effectiveness?

Alfredo Gomez: Yeah, that’s probably another review to look at the efficacy of the programs. We have historically looked at the programs that EPA has in place, for example, through the larger state revolving funds. We haven’t looked at the effectiveness of these, but we know that they do provide a lot of support to the communities and a lot of training. And they’re usually the ones that are doing it for the community.

Tom Temin: I was thinking, if it’s a system that’s really basic, where everybody has a filter under the sink than in some sense, everyone getting water is an operator of that system because if you don’t change the filter, then it’s not gonna work very well, at least for that particular house.

Alfredo Gomez: Exactly. That is correct. So you do have to replace those filters. If that’s the system that they have in place, they do have to change those filters on a regular basis. And usually people will mark in the filters when they need to be changed, whether it’s within three months or so

Tom Temin: Just zooming out, here something I said in the beginning, which was prompted by a interview some years ago, is that the United States does have the most widespread potable water, even to remote areas, which is something of a modern history phenomenon really. Does the GAO keep on top of that issue at large? I know there’s not a specific report here on this one, but that’s something you’ve looked at, correct?

Alfredo Gomez: That’s true yes. So we’ve done a number of reviews looking at drinking water systems and also wastewater systems. And yes the U.S. in general, does provide clean, safe water for people to drink. The challenge as we found in this report is, and we’ve done also worked previously, is that small water systems face additional challenges because of the fact that they may not have the financial resources, so they may not have the technical expertise or knowledge or not able to keep operators to help them. So it’s the smaller systems that that face additional challenges. And that’s where these federal programs come into place to help them come into compliance and to ensure that they are providing drinking water to their residents.

Tom Temin: Alfredo Gomez is director of Natural Resources and Environment Issues at the Government Accountability Office. Thanks so much for joining me.

Alfredo Gomez: Thank you for having me.

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