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Drinking Water in New England

Your Drinking Water Source

Local communities are responsible for protecting their community's drinking water, and as a citizen, you can directly affect the success or failure of your community's drinking water protection efforts. You can take an active role in protecting your community's drinking water sources by understanding where your drinking water comes from and finding out about its quality, by conserving the amount of water that you use, and learning ways to prevent your water supply from becoming contaminated.

Photo of water uses.  Courtesy of American Ground Water Trust and New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services–copyrighted material.

How Can You Learn About Your Drinking Water Source?

The best place to start learning about your drinking water source is through your local community. If you use a private well for your household, then you are responsible for maintaining the integrity of your well. Be sure to check your well seal periodically to be sure it isn't cracked or breaking away from the well casing. The quality of water in your private well depends on your own actions and the actions of your neighbors. The federal government does not regulate private wells, but many states and local communities do. Check with your local town hall to learn whether they have requirements which must be followed for private wells. For example, some local communities require registration and testing of private wells. Some communities also voluntarily carry out periodic testing of private wells. Your local health department is usually a good place to start learning about what is available in your town. More information about maintaining private wells can be found here.

Photo of a well and pumphouse from N. Charlestown, NH.If your home or business doesn't have its own private well, then you probably get your water from a public water supply. The best place to start learning about your drinking water is by calling your local water supplier. If you don't know who that is, or how to call them, the information should be included in your latest water bill. The Safe Drinking Water Act regulates public water supplies and requires that water is monitored, and sometimes treated to remove contaminants, before it is delivered to your home or business. You can call your local water supplier and learn where your water comes from and ask for information about its quality. Public water suppliers are required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to share information about their drinking water supply with their customers.

One important source of information about public water supplies are annual drinking water quality reports. These reports are also called Consumer Confidence Reports. EPA requires water suppliers to put annual drinking water quality reports into the hands of their customers. These consumer confidence reports, which EPA developed in consultation with water suppliers, environmental groups, and the states, give you information to make practical, knowledgeable decisions about your health and environment. While water systems are free to enhance their reports in any useful way, each report must provide consumers with the following fundamental information about their drinking water:

  • the lake, river, aquifer, or other source of the drinking water;
  • a brief summary of the susceptibility to contamination of the local drinking water source, based on the source water assessments that states are completing over the next five years;
  • how to get a copy of the water system's complete source water assessment;
  • the level (or range of levels) of any contaminant found in local drinking water, as well as EPA's health-based standard (maximum contaminant level) for comparison;
  • the likely source of that contaminant in the local drinking water supply;
  • the potential health effects of any contaminant detected in violation of an EPA health standard, and an accounting of the system's actions to correct the violation;
  • the water system's compliance with other drinking water-related rules;
  • an educational statement for vulnerable populations about avoiding Cryptosporidium (which is a contaminant that causes sickness); educational information on nitrate, arsenic, or lead in areas where these contaminants are detected above 50% of EPA's standard; and phone numbers of additional sources of information, including the water system and EPA's Safe Drinking Water Hotline--(800)426-4791.

This information supplements the public notification that water systems must provide to their customers if they discover any violation of a contaminant standard. The first reports were due October 1, 1999, and the reports must now be available by July 1 of each year. To learn if your report is available through EPA on-line press here.

In addition to your local water supplier, your local community officials are a good source of information about your drinking water and any local efforts being carried out to maintain its safety and abundance. The best place to start is usually your local health and/or planning department. Your state drinking water program can also tell you about your drinking water supply.

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What Can You Do to Protect Drinking Water?

The water which is available for our use today is the same amount of water that has always been available and that ever will be available. Yet, the amount of water used by people as part of their everyday activities has risen dramatically. Communities can educate their residents and businesses about ways to conserve water. During droughts and water shortages, some communities have instituted water restrictions (for example, allowing only odd or even day lawn and garden watering, hand-held hoses, or early morning and late evening lawn and garden watering). But, limiting water use shouldn't only happen in emergencies. Increasingly, streams in New England are struggling to maintain their native fisheries due to low in-stream flows. By using landscaping practices that conserve water you can protect the abundance of your drinking water supply and help to maintain New England's streams and the plants, animals and fisheries that depend on them. If you plan to water your lawn or garden, be sure to water only in the early morning or late evening to minimize the amount of water which evaporates and doesn't reach plant roots.

Conserving water should be an everyday practice for businesses and citizens. For example, on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, several area restaurants and hotels are participating in a new effort to conserve water. Hotels offer residents the option of avoiding daily washing of towels, and participating restaurants no longer automatically serve water to customers since many will choose to have other types of beverages during their meals. Efforts like these can be expanded throughout New England. You can also learn about models available through the "WAVE" program for businesses to predict potential water savings through changing their practices here. In addition to lawn watering, citizens can limit their water use by purchasing water efficient appliances (dishwashers, washing machines), replacing old toilets with water saving toilets, using low-flow shower nozzles and faucet heads, taking short showers and turning the faucet off when it's not being used.

Many drinking water contamination problems arise from people's everyday activities. Contaminants can be introduced into ground water, rivers, lakes, and streams from a variety of sources: septic tanks and cesspools; surface impoundments; agricultural activities; landfills; lawn care and gardening; underground storage tanks; abandoned wells; accidents; storm water systems; illegal dumping; and highway de-icing are examples.

What can you, as a citizen, do to protect the quality of your community's drinking water? You can start by supporting your local water supplier's efforts to provide safe drinking water in your community. Water supplies must be regularly maintained and must meet strict requirements for safety. Suppliers sometimes meet resistence when seeking increased water rates necessary to meet these requirements. Yet, the cost of drinking water is typically low compared to other services provided to consumers. You can also consider the effects of your own practices. Nearly everyone uses products that can contaminate water, such as motor oil, pesticides, left-over paints, weed killers, household cleaners and furniture polishes. Any harmful product you pour down the drain or flush down your toilet will enter your septic system or community's sewer system. To prevent water contamination, use and dispose of harmful materials properly, and whenever possible, substitute a nonhazardous product. Use pesticides only when they are needed and always follow the package instructions. Don't dump hazardous waste on the ground. Contact your town or city hall to learn how to dispose of hazardous waste in your community, or contact your county extension agent to learn about natural ways to control lawn, garden, and tree pests, and reduce reliance on chemicals.

Photo of household activities.  Courtesy of American Ground Water Trust and New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services–copyrighted material.

Photo of household hazardous waste day

In addition to changing your own actions, you can get involved with others in your community to protect the drinking water sources in your community. Source protection is a community-based approach to protecting sources of drinking water from contamination. Communities have worked with state and federal agencies to develop their own drinking water protection programs using local regulatory tools like zoning ordinances, subdivision ordinances, site plan review, and design and operating standards. They have also developed public education programs and offered hazardous waste collection days to encourage residents and businesses to be more protective. Land acquisition of water supply lands, water conservation and water monitoring are also used to ensure that local drinking water sources are protected, and will provide sufficient, high quality water in the future. Useful guides and examples of model regulations for drinking water protection may be available from your state drinking water program and EPA Region 1, New England Office staff.

What Else Can You Do? Contact your local health department. They are responsible for protecting both the health of people in your community and the environment. You can also contact your local planning department, watershed association, local water supplier and regional planning agency for more information on what you can do to protect your drinking water sources. Be a citizen activist by volunteering your time and energy to help with monitoring or data gathering in your community. Form community groups and get involved in decision-making as well as hands-on protection and restoration efforts, and help educate your family, friends and neighbors about the importance of drinking water to your community.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Safe Drinking Water Hotline can provide information to callers about EPA's drinking water regulations, public education materials and guidance. Please call (800) 426-4791 to reach the Hotline.

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