This is the time of year when water quality reports are landing in mailboxes and on doormats of homes across the country. Unfortunately most people will ignore these reports, and worse still, those that do take the time to review them will likely be left confused.
America’s 50,000 water utility companies are required by the EPA to provide customers with a water quality report by the first of July each year. The reports include vital data on drinking water quality, including any contaminants such as lead or arsenic found in the water, as well as any water violations and the subsequent corrective actions. But all too often, the reports are so complex and technical that customers struggle to decipher them — and simply give up.
That's not surprising. The Environmental Policy Innovation Center conducted an analysis of over 250 water quality reports from 2019 and found that most reports use language suitable for readers with graduate degrees. The reports also are predominantly available only in English, even in areas where bilingual speakers are a significant part of the population. And rarely are they designed with digital screen readers in mind — tools that the elderly and those with visual impairments might use.
Everyone should be able to quickly and easily determine whether the water in their tap is safe to drink. If we want to find out whether traffic or air quality is bad, we just pick up our phone or go to the computer and search online to find the answer. But when it comes to water, people are instead left wondering. This is unacceptable, and the consequences are serious: Recent research shows that as many as 60 million Americans don’t drink their water because they don’t think it is safe. Nearly a third of this number stopped drinking their tap water after the Flint water crisis. Without trusted tap water, they turn instead to more expensive options like bottled water or unhealthy substitutes like sugary sodas.
With the water quality crisis in the West due to drought and wildfire after-effects, and the winter storm calamity in Texas, public trust in tap water will continue to erode unless utilities do a better job at communicating risk and safety information to customers. Water quality reports are the obvious place to start.
Making water quality reports more accessible and easier to understand doesn’t have to be difficult. Simple changes could go a long way, from incorporating plain language text, providing more context on water quality results and adding translation tools, to making good faith efforts to reach customers in new and different ways — online, via apps, or in paper form at home, work, or community centers. Inaction is not due to lack of ideas nor too much red tape. EPA is working to fulfill a Congressional mandate to improve accessibility of water quality reports through a federal rule, but we can already do a lot within existing rules.
Momentum for improving water quality reports is building. Utilities and state officials in multiple states, including Pennsylvania, Virginia, Montana, Minnesota, and California, are exploring and experimenting with new approaches to their water quality reports. But more cities and states need to step up and make this a priority.
Policymakers’ current focus on making much-needed improvements to our water infrastructure through new funding is exciting. But we also need to empower consumers with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions about their drinking water. That can start on the local level by reimagining how we think about our water quality reports. If water utilities — and the state and federal regulators guiding them — take steps now, next year’s report will look a whole lot different, and so will the public’s trust in our water.
Sridhar Vedachalam is the director of water at the Environmental Policy Innovation Center.