History of Drinking Water Regulations

Drinking water regulations depend on the type of water system (Figure 1). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)external icon regulates public water systems, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administrationexternal icon regulates commercially bottled water. Individual water systems, such as private wells and cisterns, are not federally regulated. However, certain states and localities might set standards for these water supplies (for example, driller licensing and registration, well permitting, and water testing processes). Standards and requirements for private wells vary.

flowchart of drinking water systems to the public and what agency regulates them (EPA or FDA). Drinking water systems encompass public water systems, individual water systems, and bottled water. Public water systems encompass noncommunity and community water systems. Noncommunity systems can be transient like gas stations, parks, resorts, campgrounds, restaurants, and moetls with their own water systems. They can also be nontransient, like schools, factories, office buildings, and hospitals with their own water systems. Individual water systems can be privately own home or farm wells, springs, or surface water sources.

EPA Regulations

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) of 1974 and its subsequent 1986 and 1996 amendments authorize the EPA to set national standards to protect public drinking water and its sources against naturally occurring or human-made contaminants 1-3. SDWA standards include health-based maximum levels for microbiologic, chemical, and other contaminants in drinking water. They also include water treatment performance criteria for removing or inactivating contaminants (Table 1). If needed, EPA can issue guidance or a health advisory instead of a regulation.

Additional rules that protect against exposure to waterborne pathogens include the 1989 Surface Water Treatment Rule (SWTR) pdf icon[PDF – 57 pages]external icon and its amendments 1-9, and the 2013 Revised Total Coliform Rule.

The surface water treatment rule and amendments specify water-treatment techniques (for example, filtration and disinfection), monitoring, and performance criteria for systems that use surface water sources to protect against Giardia and Cryptosporidium contamination. EPA has granted waivers from the filtration requirement to some water systems. EPA has established criteria to assess whether ground water sources are under the direct influence of surface water. If so, these systems must meet provisions of the treatment rule and amendments.


Table 1. Selected EPA listings and regulations regarding drinking water, by year enacted — United States, 1974–2009

Regulation Year
 Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) 1974
 Interim Primary Drinking Water Standards 1975
 National Primary Drinking Water Standards 1985
 SDWA Amendments 1986
 Surface Water Treatment Rule (SWTR) 1989
 Total Coliform Rule (TCR) 1989
 Chemical Contaminant Rules Phase I 1989
 Lead and Copper Regulations 1990
 Chemical Contaminant Rules Phase II 1992
 Chemical Contaminant Rules Phase IIB 1993
 Chemical Contaminant Rules Phase V 1994
 SDWA Amendments 1996
 Information Collection Rule 1996
 Interim Enhanced SWTR 1998
 Stage 1 – Disinfectants and Disinfection By-Products (D-DBP) Regulation 1998
 Drinking Water Contaminant Candidate List 1998
 Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Regulations 1999
 Radionuclides Rule 2000
 Lead and Copper Rule — action levels 2000
 Filter Backwash Recycling Rule 2001
 Long Term 1 Enhanced SWTR 2002
 Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Regulations 2002
 Drinking Water Contaminant Candidate List 2 2005
 Long Term 2 Enhanced SWTR 2006
 Stage 2 D-DBP Rule 2006
 Ground Water Rule 2006
 Aircraft Drinking Water Rule (ADWR) 2009
 Drinking Water Contaminant Candidate List 3 2009
 Revised Total Coliform Rule (RTCR)  2013
  1. Water programs: national interim primary drinking water regulations, 1975. Fed Regist.. 59566-74.
  2. Pontius F, Roberson JA. The current regulatory agenda: an update. Major changes to USEPA’s current regulatory agenda are anticipated when the SDWA is reauthorized. J Am Water Works Assoc 1994;86(54ve):54-63.
  3. Pontius F. Implementing the 1996 SDWA amendments. J Am Water Works Assoc 1997;89:18-36.
  4. Drinking water, national primary drinking water regulations, filtration, disinfection, turbidity, Giardia lamblia, viruses, Legionella, and heterotrophic bacteria; final rule.pdf icon[PDF – 57 pages]external icon Fed Regist. 1989. 27486-541.
  5. National primary drinking water regulations: interim enhanced surface water treatment; final rule.pdf icon[PDF – 45 pages]external icon Fed Regist. 1998;63:69478-521.
  6. National primary drinking water regulations: long term 1 enhanced surface water treatment rule; final rule.external icon Fed Regist. 2002;67:1812-44.
  7. National primary drinking water regulations: long term 2 enhanced surface water treatment rule.external icon Fed Regist. 2006;71:653-702.
  8. National primary drinking water regulations: monitoring requirements for public drinking water supplies: Cryptosporidium, Giardia, viruses, disinfection byproducts, water treatment plant data and other information requirements; final rule. Fed Regist. 1996;61:24353-88.
  9. National primary drinking water regulations: stage 2 disinfectants and disinfection byproducts rule. Fed Regist. 2006;71:387-493.
  10. Drinking water; national primary drinking water regulations; total coliforms (including fecal coliforms and E. coli); final rule. Fed Regist. 1989;54:27544-68.
  11. Drinking water; national primary drinking water regulations; total coliforms; corrections and technical amendments; final rule. Fed Regist. 1990;55:25064-5.
  12. National primary drinking water regulations: ground water rule. Fed Regist. 2006;19:40 CFR Parts 9, 141, and 142:65573-660.
  13. Announcement of the drinking water contaminant candidate list; notice. Fed Regist. 1998;63:10274-87.
  14. Drinking water contaminant candidate list 3; final notice. Fed Regist. 2009;74:51850-62.
  15. Unregulated contaminant monitoring regulation for public water systems; amendment to the list 2 rule and partial delay of reporting of monitoring results. Fed Regist. 2001;66:46221-4.
  16. Unregulated contaminant monitoring regulation for public water systems; analytical method for list 2 contaminants; clarifications to the unregulated contaminant monitoring regulation. Fed Regist. 2001;66:2273-308.
  17. Unregulated contaminant monitoring regulation for public water systems; establishment of reporting date. Fed Regist. 2002;67:11043-6.
  18. Unregulated contaminant monitoring regulation: approval of analytical method for Aeromonas; national primary and secondary drinking water regulations: approval of analytical methods for chemical and microbiological contaminants. Fed Regist. 2002;67:65888-902.
  19. Drinking water contaminant candidate list 2; final notice. Fed Regist. 2005;70:9071-7.
  20. Basic information on CCL and regulatory determinations.external icon