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May 6, 2014

National Drinking Water Week a time to reflect on gains and the way forward

MADISON - Forty years after the Safe Drinking Water Act, Wisconsin has more public water suppliers than any other state and is a leader in providing safe water to sustain citizens and leading industries, state environmental officials say.

"The changes in how we deliver, test and disinfect water in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the United States is a tremendous success story," says Jill Jonas, who leads the Department of Natural Resources Drinking and Groundwater program.

"Generally, you can travel anywhere in Wisconsin and in the United States and feel confident about drinking a glass of water. That wasn't the case 100 years ago. You weren't assured of the water's safety, and it had a tremendous impact on our public's health," she says.

In 1910, for instance, Wisconsin's State Board of Health reported an incidence of waterborne typhoid fever in Wisconsin at a rate of 105 cases per 100,000 population.

Wisconsin had 11,409 public water supplies in 2012, surpassing Michigan with 11,044. Public drinking water systems provide at least 25 people drinking water for at least 60 days out of the year and range from municipal water suppliers to the state's largest cities to the churches, schools and taverns that provide water to their users.

Even as their numbers have grown in Wisconsin and they are required to monitor for more contaminants, Wisconsin's public water systems have maintained an exemplary track record of delivering safe water, Jonas says.

In 2012, the latest year for which figures are available, 96 percent of these public water systems had no water samples exceeding health-based standards for regulated contaminants.

"That's a real credit to the local operators, the state staff, the association members and everybody else who has a role in providing safe drinking water," Jonas says. "We often take our drinking water for granted because of the work they do day-in and day-out so that all we have to do is turn on the tap."

Jonas chairs the federal council that provides recommendations to EPA on issues related to the national drinking water program.

She says that as much progress as has been made under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the nation and citizens will need to embrace new and better ways to meet the challenge of providing safe water in the future.

"The Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act really did make significant improvements in our water quality but protecting sources of drinking water is the key for the future. There are tens of thousands of potential contaminates and we're never going to be able to use the approach we're using now. There is no way to keep up."

Jonas says that in Wisconsin and nationally, water officials are working on how to better connect regulatory tools and incentives so that they encourage practices that benefit both surface waters, like lakes and rivers, and drinking water supplies.

For example, practices that reduce contaminants found in commercial fertilizers, septic systems, animal waste and other sources from reaching lakes, rivers and groundwater will benefit our drinking water, she says. And addressing these practices on a local scale can be far more cost effective than paying for a multi-million dollar treatment plant to remove them from drinking water.

"What we've achieved so far is good news. We have to keep moving in that direction," she says. "We have so much groundwater and surface water we are truly fortunate. It's a gift not seen anywhere else in the world. So we have a responsibility to protect that as best we can."

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Jill Jonas, 608-267-7545

Last Revised: Tuesday, May 06, 2014

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