More people in Texas drink from water systems that are in violation of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act than any other state in the country, according to a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council.
A violation of those EPA guidelines can stem from a water system’s failure to report or test water, or if the water itself contains contaminants above a certain level. The report says almost 5 million people in Texas – or just over 18 percent of the state population – drink from water systems with health-based violations.
“So that means that, for example, they had too much arsenic in a lot of people’s drinking water in the state or too many of these coliform bacteria,” says the NRDC’s Eric Olson.
Experts say some health violations don’t necessarily mean the water coming out of your tap is immediately unsafe to drink.
“A recorded document of violation does not translate into a public health risk necessarily,” said Kristina Mena, professor of environmental sciences with UT School of Public Health. “It just means that there possibly is something going wrong, something isn’t working as well as it should.”
Mena says an aging infrastructure is maybe the biggest problem. She also says smaller, rural water systems also tend to have more violations. Texas has a lot of those.
“Different systems have different guidelines to follow based upon the size of the population they serve,” Mena said. "So, there are so many factors that come into play that might trigger a violation, that it’s just difficult to characterize the summarized data that’s presented in the [NRDC] report.”
Olson said lax enforcement of drinking water standards could also lead to more violations.
“Honestly, I think, if you don’t have a cop on the beat making sure that people are complying that definitely contributes to the problem,” he said.
In Texas, that “cop on the beat” is the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The state agency wouldn’t make anyone available for interview, but emailed KUT a response:
The TCEQ is still reviewing the report. But comparing Texas to other states is misleading because of the sheer size, large number of community public water systems, geographic variability of sources used for drinking water, and a robust program that actively enforces public drinking water rules.