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What are the Challenges Small Systems Face?

Drinking water systems that serve fewer than 10,000 people are "small systems." Most are privately owned. Small systems face unique challenges when it comes to compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act.

For many reasons, it is difficult for small systems to keep pace with rapidly expanding regulatory mandates. Technical products are often wrong for small systems. The Safe Drinking Water Act provides exemptions for small systems. They must show compelling economic circumstances. However, small systems must be able to improve their technical, managerial, and financial abilities in order to serve their customers safe, clean drinking water. Some of their challenges are:

  • Small system infrastructure may be out-of-date and in poor condition. Most of the distribution system is located underground. Detecting and solving problems, such as leaks and pipe deterioration, are more difficult.
  • Source water may be of poor quality and limited quantity.
  • Technical expertise to evaluate and install new treatment technologies may be needed.
  • Small systems have a small customer base which means less cash available. Consequently, small systems often lack the opportunity to benefit from economies of scale.
  • Despite the obvious need for source water protection, just 28 percent of the smallest systems participate in some form of source water or wellhead protection program. Some small systems are less likely to adopt these programs because of the lack of technical and financial resources to implement and manage such programs.

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What is EPA's Strategy for Small Systems?

EPA's strategy for small systems research aims to:

  • Provide timely and appropriate information that will help small systems reduce Safe Drinking Water Act violations and public health risks
  • Perform research that will drive new small system technologies and improve existing technologies to reduce costs and increase operational simplicity

EPA assists small systems by providing research results and tools in the following areas:

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What is EPA Doing?

EPA’s small system research serves small and decentralized water systems. EPA provides technology and decision-support tools that are user-friendly. Research includes the entire water cycle as it affects small systems. Small system research focuses on:

  • Source water protection
  • Drinking water treatment
  • Water quality in distribution systems
  • Wastewater collection
  • Treatment and disposal
  • Water quality issues, such as residual disposal and discharge
  • Evaluation of treatment technologies and management systems for, reliability, operation, maintenance, and compliance

Treatment Technologies

Water is the universal solvent, and most materials eventually dissolve in water. Even so, water found in nature does contain a variety of contaminants that enter the water either through natural processes or via human and animal wastes. These wastes are the primary contributors to microbiological contamination of water. In addition, industrial and agricultural sources can introduce chemical, pesticide, and herbicide residues into water.

Today, there's an emphasis on disinfection and filtration technologies that remove contaminants from water. Technologies can be packaged together to provide an affordable solution for small system operators who may not otherwise be able to efficiently treat their water. EPA has evaluated several of these commercially available, prefabricated "package plants" suitable for small systems.

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Small Systems Contacts

Craig Patterson, Small Wastewater Systems

Chris Impellitteri, Small Drinking Water Systems

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