Grading Drinking Water in U.S. Cities

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What’s on Tap?  

To view the entire report from the National Resources Defense Council, which is 145 pages, please click here.  
Every day more than 300 million of us in this country turn on our faucets in order to drink, bathe, and cook, using water from public water systems. And as we do, we often take the purity of our tap water for granted. We shouldn’t. Before it comes out of our taps, water in most cities usually undergoes a complex treatment process, often including filtration and disinfection. As good as our municipal water systems can be (and they can be very good), they also can fail — sometimes tragically. 

In 1999, for example, more than 1,000 people fell ill at a county fair in upstate New York after ingesting an extremely virulent strain of E. colibacteria; a three-year-old girl and an elderly man died when their bodies could not fight off the pathogen. (1) This is just one incident; health officials have documented scores of similar waterborne disease outbreaks in towns and cities across the nation during the past decade.

So, just how safe is our drinking water? In a careful and independent study, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) evaluated the quality of drinking water supplies in 19 cities around the country. ( 2) 

The NRDC selected cities that represent the broadest range of American city water supplies and reviewed tap water quality data, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) compliance records, and water suppliers’ annual reports (material required by law in order to inform citizens of the overall health of their tap water; also called “right-to-know reports”).  ( 3)  
In addition, it gathered information on pollution sources that may contaminate the lakes, rivers, or underground aquifers that cities use as drinking water sources. Finally, they evaluated their findings and issued grades for each city in three areas:

  • water quality and compliance
  • right-to-know reports
  • source water protection

NRDC found that, although drinking water purity has improved slightly during the past 15 years in most cities, overall tap water quality varies widely from city to city. Some cities like Chicago have excellent tap water; most cities have good or mediocre tap water. Yet several cities — such as Albuquerque, Fresno, and San Francisco — have water that is sufficiently contaminated so as to pose potential health risks to some consumers, particularly to pregnant women, infants, children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems, according to Dr. David Ozonoff, Chairman of the Environmental Health Program at Boston University School of Public Health and a nationally known expert on drinking water and health issues.

While tap water quality varies, there is one overarching truth that applies to all U.S. cities: unless we take steps now, our tap water will get worse. Two factors pose imminent threats to drinking water quality in America:
NRDC found that, although drinking water purity has improved slightly during the past 15 years in most cities, overall tap water quality varies widely from city to city. Some cities like Chicago have excellent tap water; most cities have good or mediocre tap water. Yet several cities — such as Albuquerque, Fresno, and San Francisco — have water that is sufficiently contaminated so as to pose potential health risks to some consumers, particularly to pregnant women, infants, children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems, according to Dr. David Ozonoff, chair of the Environmental Health Program at Boston University School of Public Health and a nationally known expert on drinking water and health issues.

While tap water quality varies, there is one overarching truth that applies to all U.S. cities: unless we take steps now, our tap water will get worse. Two factors pose imminent threats to drinking water quality in America:

  • First, we are relying on pipes that are, on average, a century old. The water systems in many cities — including Atlanta, Boston, and Washington, D.C. — were built toward the end of the 19th century. Not only is our water supply infrastructure breaking down at alarming rates (the nation suffered more than 200,000 water main ruptures in 2002), but old pipes can leach contaminants and breed bacteria in drinking water.
  • Second, regulatory and other actions by the Bush administration threaten the purity of American tap water. These actions include: weakening legislative protections for source waters, stalling on issuing new standards for contaminants, delaying the strengthening of existing standards, and cutting and even eliminating budgets for protective programs.

NRDC’s study demonstrates that in order to improve water quality and protect public health, we must:

  • invest in infrastructure
  • upgrade treatment and distribution facilities
  • improve public understanding through the efficacy of right-to-know reports
  • safeguard source water.

Furthermore, we must enlist our elected officials in the solution and urge them to:

  • invest in infrastructure and treatment
  • strengthen and enforce existing standards
  • fund programs that improve tap water quality

Water Quality and Compliance


 Water Quality and ComplianceCity2001 GradeChicagoExcellentBaltimoreGoodDenverGoodDetroitGoodManchesterGoodNew OrleansGoodAtlantaFairHoustonFairLos AngelesFairNewarkFairPhiladelphiaFairSan DiegoFairSeattleFairWashington, D.CFairAlbuquerquePoorBostonPoorFresnoPoorPhoenixPoorSan FranciscoPoor

Healthy city water supplies in this country resemble each other in three distinct ways: they have good source water protection, treatment, and maintenance and operation of the system. Every problem water supply, however, is unhealthy in its own way: it may fail in just one of the three discrete areas mentioned above, or it may have a combination of factors that contribute to the system’s ailments. Fresno, for example, has no source water protection; Newark and San Francisco do not have adequate treatment systems in place; Atlanta has poor maintenance of its distribution system. Any of these factors will introduce contaminants into the water.
A Handful of Contaminants Found in Most Cities
NRDC observed that while tap water can contain a vast array of contaminants, a handful of particularly harmful contaminants surfaced repeatedly in our study. They include: 

  • Lead, which enters drinking water supplies from the corrosion of pipes or faucets and can cause permanent brain damage and decreased intelligence in infants and children
  • Pathogens (germs) such as coliform bacteria or Cryptosporidium, a microscopic disease-carrying protozoan that presents health concerns, especially to individuals with weakened immune systems including HIV/AIDS patients, the elderly, children, and people who have undergone organ transplants or cancer chemotherapy or who have certain chronic diseases
  • By-products of the chlorination process such as trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids, which may cause cancer and, potentially, reproductive problems and miscarriage
  • Several other carcinogens and other toxic chemicals, including arsenic (which is naturally occurring or derives from mining and industrial processes), radioactive radon, the pesticide atrazine (affecting the water of more than 1 million Americans), and perchlorate from rocket fuel (present in the water supplies of more than 20 million Americans).

Few Violations, Often Weak Standards
Overall, NRDC’s study revealed a relatively small number of cities that were in outright violation of national standards. This fact did not necessarily imply low contaminant levels but rather low standards: in short, the EPA has written most standards in a way that the vast majority of cities will not be in violation. For example, recent studies show that there is no safe level of cancer-causing arsenic in drinking water. Nonetheless, today’s standard, in place since 1942, is 50 parts per billion (ppb). The EPA recently set a new standard at 10 ppb (which went into effect in 2006), a level that the National Academy of Sciences has found presents a lifetime fatal cancer risk of about 1 in 333 — a risk that is at least 30 times greater than what the EPA generally considers acceptable. (4)  

When the EPA announced it found a standard of 3 ppb was feasible, there was an outcry from water utilities and industry — and ultimately the EPA, citing treatment costs, decided not to adopt that stricter standard. Nonetheless, arsenic is still present in the drinking water of 22 million Americans, hovering at average levels of 5 ppb — half the new national standard and just one-tenth of the current national standard. Thus, the mere fact that a city may meet the federal standard for arsenic (or other high-risk contaminants with weak standards) does not necessarily mean that the water is safe.

Aging Infrastructure Causes More Spikes in Contamination
Finally, NRDC’s study revealed an increase in the frequency of periodic spikes in contamination in many cities — indicating that aging equipment and infrastructure may be inadequate to handle today’s contaminant loads or spills. On occasion, these risks were substantial. In recent years, for example, Atlanta, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., issued boil-water alerts as a result of problems including spikes in turbidity (cloudiness, which may indicate the presence of disease-causing pathogens) or other potential microbial problems. And in Washington, D.C., levels of cancer-causing trihalomethanes — which potentially cause cancer, birth defects, and miscarriages — peaked at more than double the EPA standard. (It is noteworthy that while Washington, D.C., recently changed its treatment to mitigate such spikes, many other cities continue to suffer from them.) While aggressive action in each city has lowered those levels, spikes in contaminants may pose immediate health problems to particularly susceptible people.

NRDC makes three major recommendations to improve water quality and compliance.

First, NRDC recommends that this country invest in infrastructure to upgrade deteriorating water systems and modernize treatment techniques. Not only do old pipes break, but they can also allow bacteria and other contaminants to get into the water supply — and make people sick. Modernizing infrastructure is a costly but necessary task. New Orleans’s system, for example, needs at least $1 billion in repairs and improvements, according to city officials; Washington, D.C., is implementing a $1.6 billion capital improvement plan to improve city water and wastewater. (5, 6)
Credible estimates for upgrades and repairs that would ensure the safety of drinking water nationwide for years to come place the tab at around $500 billion. (7)  In May 2002, the Congressional Budget Office came to a similar conclusion: from $232 to $402 billion in investments will be needed over the next two decades to upgrade and repair the nation’s drinking water systems. (8) Specifically, NRDC recommends that:

  • Legislators appropriate substantial additional federal, state, and local funds to help America’s neglected city drinking water systems shoulder $500 billion in water infrastructure needs nationwide
  • Congress enact and fund water infrastructure legislation that at least doubles current federal support for drinking water supplies from the current level of $1.7 billion per year; a portion of this funding should be earmarked for source water protection and other cost-effective “green infrastructure” projects
  • State and local governments consider raising money through bond issues and other financing mechanisms in order to fund investment
  • Congress enact municipal bond reform legislation to make bonds a more efficient and attractive means to support water infrastructure projects
  • Water systems increase rates, which will allow them to collect sufficient funds — with support from state and federal government funding — to rehabilitate, upgrade, and fully maintain their water supply infrastructure for the long haul
  • Water systems adopt long-term operation and maintenance planning, and capital improvement plans, to assure that old pipes and infrastructure will be replaced and rehabilitated before the problems become crises
  • Congress and water systems adopt low-income water assistance programs and lifeline rates to help lower-income residents afford water as costs increase to pay for infrastructure upgrades

Second, NRDC recommends that investment be earmarked not just for old pipes but also for upgrading drinking water treatment. Most major U.S. cities still employ the same basic water treatment technologies that have been used since before World War I — techniques that cannot remove many human-made (or human released) chemicals that modern science, industry, mining, and manufacturing have created or released.( 9)  
With today’s technology, four state-of-the-art advanced treatment techniques are available and used in Europe and elsewhere in the world but are rarely used alone in this country and virtually never together: ozone, granulated activated carbon, ultraviolet (UV) light treatment, membrane treatment (such as reverse osmosis or nanofiltration).
Advanced treatment is most effective. For example, a new Seattle plant uses ozone and UV treatment to kill Cryptosporidium, and in Manchester, the use of granular activated carbon has reduced levels of synthetic organic chemicals, including trihalomethanes. A few cities are using membrane treatment to reduce salt levels or to get rid of contaminants that are difficult to treat.
NRDC recommends that cities invest in protecting and improving the quality of tap water as follows. Regarding infrastructure, we recommend that water systems:

  • Shift to ozone and/or UV light as primary disinfectants, which eliminateCryptosporidium and other pathogens unharmed by chlorine and which reduce levels of chlorination by-products, such as trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids
  • Use granulated activated carbon to further reduce the levels of disinfection byproducts and other synthetic organic chemicals such as pesticides and industrial chemicals
  • Seriously consider upgrading to membrane treatment, since it can eliminate virtually all contaminants

Regarding infrastructure, we recommend that the EPA:

  • Encourage upgrades to advanced treatment technologies
  • Invest in research and development to improve current technologies and to bring down costs
  • Develop incentives for water systems to adopt advanced treatment such as membranes to eliminate most contaminants from tap water

Third, NRDC recommends that the EPA strengthen and enforce existing health standards that are too weak, and draft and enforce new standards for those contaminants that remain unregulated. Specifically, we recommend that the EPA:

  • Issue new standards for: 
    • perchlorate
    • radon
    • distribution systems
    • groundwater microbes
    • other emerging contaminants (see Chapter 5)
  • Strengthen existing standards for: 
    • arsenic
    • atrazine/total triazines
    • chromium
    • Cryptosporidium and other pathogens
    • fluoride
    • haloacetic acids
    • lead
    • total trihalomethanes
    • ph balanced water

Vulnerable Consumers Need to Take Special Precautions. It is critical to note that the recommendations above describe long-term solutions to improve overall drinking water quality in this country. For those people who have immediate concerns about tap water safety, NRDC brings to the fore EPA recommendations as follows: people with serious immune system problems (such as people on cancer chemotherapy or people with HIV/AIDS) should consult with their health care providers about drinking tap water in order to avoid the risk of infection from contaminated water. Pregnant women and infants may also be at special risk from certain contaminants common in many cities’ tap water, such as lead, nitrates, and chlorine by-products.

Right-to-Know Reports


 Right-to-Know ReportsCity2001 GradeAlbuquerqueGoodBaltimoreGoodChicagoGoodDenverGoodDetroitGoodLos AngelesGoodManchesterGoodPhiladelphiaGoodAtlantaFairHoustonFairSan DiegoFairSan FranciscoFairSeattleFairWashington, D.CFairBostonPoorFresnoPoorNew OrleansPoorNewarkFailingPhoenixFailing

Citizens have a right to know whether their drinking water is safe, as mandated in the 1996 amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act. This law required water suppliers to notify the public of dangers in tap water and inform people about the overall health of their watershed. Instead, in many cases, right-to-know reports have become propaganda for water suppliers, and the enormous promise of right-to-know reports has not been achieved.
The quality of the right-to-know reports reviewed in NRDC’s study varied: some were successful tools for consumer education; some appeared to be less than direct, including Newark’s, Fresno’s, and Phoenix’s, which buried, obscured, and even omitted findings about health effects of contaminants in city water supplies, printed misleading statements, and violated a number of right-to-know requirements. Problems NRDC observed in right-to-know reports included:

  • False, unqualified, misleading, or unsubstantiated claims 
    • For example, the cover pages of the 1999, 2000, and 2001 Washington, D.C., rightto- know reports included prominent and unqualified statements of safety: “Your Drinking Water Is Safe!” — even though the city had levels of chlorination byproducts, lead, bacteria, and other pollutants measuring above health goals, and even though the city water supply suffered an unexplained spike in cyanide that was the highest recorded in this study.
  • Errors and violations of EPA right-to-know requirements 
    • EPA rules require the reports to reveal known sources of pollutants in city water, such as factories or Superfund sites. None of the 19 cities surveyed named specific polluters in the right-to-know reports.
  • Incorrect, misleading, or buried information or data 
    • For example, Newark’s report buried the health warning and detailed information on the city’s failure to meet EPA’s action level for lead, which poses risks, especially to infants and young children.
  • Failure to include information on health effects 
    • Nearly all cities surveyed failed to provide information on the health effects of some contaminants found at levels below EPA standards but above EPA health goals.
  • Failure to translate reports into other languages spoken in communities 
    • Fewer than half the cities surveyed offered any kind of translation of right-to-know reports.

NRDC recommends that water systems change right-to-know report presentation, as follows:

  • Make the documents user-friendly by using large typeface, photos, and graphics
  • Use plain language and avoid jargon and acronyms
  • Avoid sweeping and prominent claims of absolute safety
  • Prominently place the warnings to especially vulnerable people on the front page of their report, set off in a box or otherwise, to capture these consumers’ attention
  • Discuss any significant water quality and compliance issues prominently in the first paragraphs of the report, linking the information to the investment needs of the utility
  • Candidly discuss the potential health effects of contaminants found in their water — at least those contaminants found at levels in excess of national or state health goals, action levels, or health advisories
  • Convey as much information as possible about the specific pollution sources in watersheds that are or may be contributing to contamination or that are threatening to contaminate a water supply
  • Include a map of source water, including location and names of major pollution sources
  • Translate right-to-know reports into any language beyond English that is the primary language of more than 10 percent of a population, based upon 2000 Census data (see Table on page 36 in Chapter 3.

Source Water Protection


 Source Water ProtectionCityRatingSeattleExcellentBostonGoodDenverGoodManchesterGoodSan FranciscoGoodBaltimoreFairChicagoFairLos Angeles (local)FairNewarkFairSan Diego (local)FairWashington, D.C.FairAlbuquerquePoorAtlantaPoorDetroitPoorHoustonPoorLos Angeles (imported)PoorNew OrleansPoorPhiladelphiaPoorPhoenixPoorSan Diego (imported)PoorFresnoFailing

Source water — the bodies of water from which a city draws its drinking water — varies in origin. Most cities get their water primarily from aboveground supplies, such as lakes and rivers; a few cities like Albuquerque and Fresno get their water primarily from groundwater — that is, underground aquifers tapped by city wells. Source waters are most frequently contaminated by:

  • Municipal sewage
  • Polluted runoff from storm water or snowmelt in urban and suburban areas
  • Pesticides and fertilizers from agricultural fields
  • Animal waste from feedlots and farms
  • Industrial pollution from factories
  • Mining waste
  • Hazardous waste sites
  • Spills and leaks of petroleum products and industrial chemicals
  • “Natural” contamination such as arsenic or radon that occurs in water as a result of leaching or release of the contaminant from rock

Source water protection is key to strong drinking water protection. Some cities like Seattle, Boston, San Francisco, and Denver have at least some well-protected watersheds. Some cities have site-specific burdens. For example, Fresno relies upon wells, many of which have become seriously contaminated by agricultural and industrial pollution, including nitrates; Houston also relies on wells that are vulnerable to naturally occurring radioactive radon and arsenic in the region. Philadelphia’s river sources are vulnerable to pollution from farms, sewage, urban runoff, industry, and spills; Denver, to debris and sediment resulting from erosion after wildfires; and Manchester, to MTBE, a gasoline additive, present in the city’s main water source apparently as a result of recreational boating or other gasoline use in its main watershed. 
The Colorado River, which serves as a major source of drinking water for Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, and many other cities and towns, is contaminated by the rocket fuel perchlorate from a Kerr-McGee site in Henderson, Nevada, and by other contaminants from other pollution sources, including agriculture, urban and suburban runoff, and industry.
While most cities reviewed need stronger source water protection, some cities, including Albuquerque, Atlanta, Detroit, Fresno, Houston, Los Angeles, Manchester, Newark, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and San Diego, have serious and immediate needs for better source water protection. The antidote lies with elected officials (generally state or other officials with authority to control polluters outside of the city’s limits) who control the funds and write the laws that can protect source water. Cities can’t always choose where they get their water from, but they can work with state and federal officials to improve protections. 
The result may be a wide spectrum of efforts to protect water sources. Seattle, for example, has implemented very extensive source water protection programs that include banning agricultural, industrial, and recreational activities in and residential use of watersheds. Other cities such as Manchester and Boston have made great strides in land acquisition and watershed management programs.
Water suppliers, states, the EPA, and Congress must take more aggressive action to protect source water from contamination. The first line of defense in securing drinking water safety is to ensure that the source water — lakes, rivers, or groundwater — is protected from pollution. This requires aggressive efforts by water utilities and state officials, who must identify pollution sources, such as concentrated animal feeding operations, major agricultural sources, storm water runoff, combined sewer and sanitary sewer overflow (CSOs/SSOs), certain point sources, and more; etc.); the EPA particularly needs to take a leadership role in issuing and enforcing strong regulations. In addition, Congress needs to step in to protect the EPA’s jurisdiction to control pollution of smaller streams and wetlands (see Chapter 7) and to enact stronger legislation addressing groundwater pollution, polluted runoff, CSOs/SSOs, and other poorly controlled sources. Specifically NRDC recommends that utilities work with state and federal legislators to:

  • Craft legislation and appropriate funding for land acquisition and easement purchases
  • Push for improved controls on pollution from a variety of sources
  • Concentrated animal feeding operations and other agricultural sources
  • Pesticide pollution from chemicals that are highly soluble and cause widespread pollution, such as atrazine and other triazines
  • Stormwater runoff, combined sewers and sanitary sewer overflows, and chemical contamination from industry

Bush Administration Actions Endanger America’s Drinking Water Supplies

In light of a targeted assault on the nation’s water protection laws waged by the Bush administration, tap water quality may get worse. The Bush administration endangered the health of our nation’s tap water by:

  • Rolling back existing water protection laws, including 
    • Dismantling the Clean Water Act by proposing to slash protections for headwater streams and wetlands, cutting programs for polluted waters, and weakening restrictions on livestock waste
    • Lifting the ban on mountaintop removal mining
    • Relaxing sewage treatment requirements after rain and snow
    • Exempting polluting industry from paying for Superfund cleanup
  • Undermining drinking water standards 
    • Halting mandated progress on new standards, such as those forCryptosporidium, total trihalomethanes, haloacetic acids, radon, perchlorate, groundwater pathogens, as well as standards to control threats to distribution systems
    • Failing, as mandated, to strengthen existing standards for bacteria, lead, chromium, atrazine, triazines, certain pesticides, fluoride, and other chemicals where improved public health protection is feasible
  • Slashing funding for water quality protection programs, including 
    • The Clean Water Act State Revolving Fund, cut by $500 million (36 percent)
    • The Safe Drinking Water Act Revolving Fund, which received $150 million less than Congress authorized and does not meet current needs
    • Water pollution projects, reduced from $459 million to $98 million
    • Canceling the Superfund “polluter pays” program, causing serious budget shortfalls, slowing or stopping cleanups, and requiring $1.1 billion to be paid by taxpayers that would otherwise have been paid by polluters
    • The Land and Water Conservation Fund, reducing federal land acquisition by more than 50 percent. 

1. “1,061 Suspected E. coli Cases in New York Outbreak,” Infectious Disease News, October 1999, available online at; CDC, “Public Health Dispatch: Outbreak of Escherichiacoli O157:H7 and Campylobacter Among Attendees of the Washington County Fair, New York,” 1999. MMWR, 1999; 48(36)803 (return)
2. Four of the 19 cities (Fresno, Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco) were presented in an earlier October 2002 California pre-release of this report. (return)
3. Cities were selected to represent the broadest range of American city water supplies: criteria included a geographic range across the country, large cities (Los Angeles at 1.2 million) and small cities (Manchester, New Hampshire at 128,000), treatment types (unfiltered, such as Seattle, and filtered, such as Atlanta), systems that use primarily groundwater (like Albuquerque) and those that use primarily surface water (like Boston), e.g.(return)
4. National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council, Arsenic in Drinking Water: 2001 Update (NAS, 2001). (return)
5. “Rotting Sewer, Water Lines Tough Problems in Big Easy,” Chicago Tribune, July 7, 2002, available online at (return)
6. 2000 Drinking Water Quality Report, Washington, D.C., Water and Sewer Authority (WASA), available online at (return)
7. Water Infrastructure Network, “Clean Safe Water for the 21st Century,” 2000, available online at www.amsa-cleanwater. org/advocacy/winreport/winreport2000.pdf. (return)
8. Congressional Budget Office, “Future Investment in Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure,” May 2002, available online at (return)
9. See Brian Cohen and Erik Olson, Victorian Water Treatment Enters the 21st Century, Natural Resources Defense Council, 1995. (return)