AWWA Water Science Looks at Rural Factors for SDWA Compliance

AWWA’s Water Science online publication has posted a new article titled Small towns, big challenges:  Does rurality influence Safe Drinking Water Act compliance?  AWWA Water Science is an interdisciplinary journal publishing original, refereed research on the science, engineering, and social aspects of water.

This study used 51,000 as the collective number of community water systems (CWS) in the US today.  The majority of these systems (82%) serve fewer than 3,300 people which represent only 11% of the national population.  This study hypothesizes that rural and urban residents are exposed to different patterns or drinking water violations and contaminants.  Further, the study highlights chronic monitoring (MR) noncompliance across rural regions which may mask consumer health concerns and identifies TCR as the most frequently violated health based rule.  The Stage 1 DBPR and Arsenic Rule were also among the most frequently violated rules.  In fact, TCR has remained the most frequently cited violation since 2006.  Because of its diversity of income, race, and distribution of urban and rural areas, Virginia echoes the nation and was used as the study area.

Over 9,500 violations for 1,133 Virginia CWSs from 1996-2019 were analyzed to:

  1. Evaluate the effects of size and rurality on compliance;
  2. Identify patterns in contaminant prevalence; and
  3. Identify gaps in consumer protection.

The researchers from Virginia Tech found that very small systems had significantly more MR violations than large systems, while medium CWSs had significantly more MCL violations. The study acknowledges that small, rural CWS often struggle to financially support a complex service, given low public investment and goes on to note that, nationally, the development of more protective standards leads to increased technology needs, exacerbating issues related to drinking water affordability and system financing.  The study also considered whether the failure to meet MR requirements is a deliberate effort to avoid detection of health-based violations or the sole result of financial and/or technical hardship.

Study conclusions recognized total coliform as the most common health-based contaminant for every sized system (in Virginia and nationally).  Small and rural CWSs face different compliance challenges than large and urban systems.  The study concludes with a question, “If rural areas have high MR noncompliance, and subsequently lower health-based reliability, do rural populations have higher exposure risks than urban ones?” and recommends additional research on linking health data and compliance data.