WASHINGTON, D.C. – National Rural Water Association President Charles Hilton spoke during a celebration of the 40th Anniversary of the Safe Drinking Water Act held on Dec. 9th at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The event was hosted by a collection of water organizations, including the American Water Works Association, the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, the National Association of Water Companies, and the National Rural Water Association.
“I was in the industry when both the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act were implemented. I have experienced events that have profound effects on the health and safety of millions of Americans every day now and in the future, while both restoring and protecting our most precious resource, our water,” said Hilton, who is the general manager of the Breezy Hill Water and Sewer Company in South Carolina.
The Safe Drinking Water Act was enacted in 1974 as a means to ensure safe drinking water for the public. While many states had drinking water regulations, the SDWA was the first time the federal government had a way to create enforceable, nation-wide drinking water standards.
“In his signing statement of the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act, President Gerald Ford emphasized the most important precept of the Act for it to be judged successful;,” Hilton said. “That precept was the idea of a partnership: a partnership beginning here in our nation’s capital, intermeshed with our 50 state governments, and ending in a place called Breezy Hill Water District that I manage – a partnership between the local community, state government, and finally the federal government.”
In many ways, the SDWA act lead to the creation of the National Rural Water Association. After the act, small water systems were faced with national standards that they often lacked the resources to meet, so they started forming associations with the goal of providing the necessary funding, training, and technical assistance to comply with the new regulations.
“The National Rural Water Association represents 30,000 of these small local communities,” Hilton said. “Some are so small they are both governed and operated by unpaid volunteers. Some are large enough to have professionals who lead the industry in technical, operational, and managerial skills. But all 30,000 are committed to one end goal – they exist to protect the health of their respective communities by providing the safest water possible.”
In the 40 years since the law’s creation, the challenges have changed and grown more complex.
“Originally, I had written the remark that for the truly small systems, and even for systems the size of my system, our challenges are enormous,” Hilton said. “But while true, I immediately realized that every water system in our nation is equally challenged, some simply have more resources, but all are faced with the same problems. Forty years ago preparedness meant having a repair clamp for every size of pipe in your system. Today we still have to have that clamp, but that is the easy part. The difficult problems are facing the Hurricane Katrinas and Superstorm Sandys; facing the fact that climate is changing and that we must prepare for droughts that we are experiencing now or the flooding that will occur elsewhere.”
Hilton took time to highlight the various partnerships that have helped rural water systems. Those include billions of dollars in funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and both regulatory and financial assistance from the Environmental Protection Agency.
“President Ford said in 1974, ‘I am pleased to say that we are moving ahead to confront these new problems threatening our drinking water.’ Forty years later we are still moving ahead,” Hilton said. “We have not reached our goal, but because of the individuals in this room, their organizations, and the involvement of our communities, we will overcome every challenge.”
Hilton’s speech was part of a day of events that included presentations from Peter Grevatt, Gina McCarthy, and Victor Kim of the EPA.