Directing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to develop a plan to combat cyanotoxins in drinking water after an algal bloom shut off drinking water supplies to Toledo, Ohio, last summer may be just half of the solution to protecting communities’ water supplies. The other is to increase federal funding to help communities across the country fight the problem largely caused by nutrient runoff, water industry officials told a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee Thursday.
Though the Obama administration’s proposed budget calls for maintaining the 2015 spending levels for the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Fund at $2.3 billion in 2016, it has been estimated to cost about $1.7 trillion to replace aging drinking water infrastructure across the country.
Some water industry officials told a House Committee on Energy and Commerce subcommittee the bill moved to the full committee is a good first step toward getting a handle on algal blooms across the country.
Michael G. Baker with the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, told the committee there is a need to look for additional ways to fund drinking water infrastructure improvements beyond EPA.
“They can only do so much with the resources available,” he said. “…The SRF has been an extremely valuable tool.”
Aurel Arndt, chief executive officer of the Lehigh County Authority in Allentown, Pa., said the drinking water fund is important, but not enough to meet a growing threat of algal blooms to drinking water.
“SRF has never been funded to meet the needs,” he said. “Additional funding is needed. We need to look at a multiplicity of resources.”
Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said he’s concerned states like Ohio will continue to shoulder the brunt of the financial burden to further secure drinking water from threats. Protecting water from cyanotoxins can be expensive and solutions may have to be funded by already strained state budgets.
“I believe the bill should have resources to carry out the program,” he said.
The bill would for the first time require EPA to address cyanotoxins in drinking water. The agency would be required to submit a strategic plan to Congress for assessing and managing risks associated with cyanotoxins in public water systems. EPA would be required to evaluate the risk to human health, establish, publish and update a comprehensive list of cyanotoxins determined to be harmful to human health.
The bill would require EPA to publish known adverse human health effects, the factors that cause cyanobacteria, and to publish health advisories.
Peter C. Grevatt, director of the office of ground water and drinking water at EPA, told the committee it would have health advisories ready by this spring ahead of the next algal bloom season.
“The agency strongly agrees that the presence of cyanotoxins in drinking water is an important public health issue and is currently taking steps to work with states and public water systems to assess and manage of the risk of cyanotoxins in drinking water,” he said in his written testimony.
“Currently, there are no U.S. federal regulations concerning the management of harmful algal blooms in drinking water under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The EPA has been working on finalizing health advisories for two cyanotoxins …”
The EPA health advisories will establish concentrations of drinking water contaminants below where adverse health effects are unlikely to occur. Grevatt said EPA has been conducting studies to identify and evaluate causes, detection, treatment, and health and ecological effects in the U.S.
Health advisories are not federally enforceable standards, he said, but are intended to provide states, municipalities, and other local officials with technical guidance for protecting public health or for developing their own guidance.
On Aug. 2, 2014, the city of Toledo issued a “do not drink or boil” advisory for drinking water to some 500,000 water customers, as a result of an algal bloom on Lake Erie.
Kristy Meyer, managing director of agricultural, health and clean water programs at the Ohio Environmental Council, said nutrient runoff into Lake Erie has been a problem for 20 years.
Since 1995, phosphorous in the lake has been increasing, she said. It has led to an increasing frequency of harmful algal blooms that put water quality at high risk. In 2011, phosphorous in Lake Erie was found in concentrations a thousand times higher than what the World Health Organization recommends for safe contact, Meyer said.
According to the Ohio Phosphorus Task Force, there is a need to cut nutrients flowing into Lake Erie by at least 40%.
“It is vitally important to ensure safe drinking water, but we cannot cure the symptoms and expect this problem to go away,” Meyer said.