Drinking Water:

Some Households Rely on Untreated Water From Irrigation Systems

RCED-98-244: Published: Sep 3, 1998. Publicly Released: Sep 3, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the: (1) location and number of households that rely on irrigation systems or other special purpose water systems for some or all of their residential water needs; (2) cost of the water used by such households and the cost and feasibility of alternative sources; and (3) implementation issues that are likely to affect the states' and special purpose water systems' ability to meet the new requirements.

GAO noted that: (1) according to officials of the Environmental Protection Agency, California and Texas are likely to contain the largest concentrations of people relying on water from irrigation systems in the United States; (2) preliminary estimates by irrigation systems managers indicate that in California, in the counties where residential use of irrigation water is believed to be most prevalent, several thousand households are relying on such water for some or all of their residential water needs; (3) several factors make it difficult to obtain precise data on the extent of usage, particularly the uncertainty about whether and how water from irrigation and other special purpose systems is being used inside the home; (4) given the extensive availability of irrigation water within these Texas counties and the lack of alternative sources, state and local officials believe that a significant number of these households are probably using irrigation water for at least some residential water needs; (5) the vast majority of the households relying on such water in both California and Texas are believed by state, local, and irrigation system officials to be purchasing bottled or hauled water for drinking and cooking and using the water from irrigation and other special purpose systems for other uses; (6) residential users of irrigation systems currently pay from $100 to $700 per year for untreated water that is supposed to be used only for nondomestic purposes; (7) the cost of buying bottled or hauled water currently ranges from $120 to $650 per year; (8) other alternatives can be considerably more expensive and may not be affordable without financial assistance; (9) several factors affect the cost of treatment, including the quality of the source water, the terrain, the distance between residential customers, and the proximity of existing community water systems; (10) most residential users of special purpose water systems are located in areas with relatively low median incomes, but federal and state funding is available to help offset the cost of some alternatives; (11) both the difficulty of identifying residential users and the costs and technical issues associated with finding alternatives to irrigation water are likely to present major challenges to states and special purpose water systems when implementing the new requirements established in the 1996 amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act; and (12) state officials also indicated that their ability to implement the new requirements would be affected by competing demands for the limited resources of the states' drinking water programs.

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