How To Read Your Water Quality Report

Drinking water contamination has been a growing concern across the United States, after recent crises in Flint, MI, Baltimore, New York, and Jackson, MS. With the rise of environmental awareness and increasing research about concerning contaminants, many consumers are seeking better information about their water quality. They want to know what’s in their water and whether it’s safe to drink and use daily.

If you rely on water from your city, you may have received a water quality report. Anyone who pays for public tap water can request this annual report free from the government. Renters may need to ask the building owner for a copy or see if the report is publicly available. 

It may look tricky to interpret, but understanding this report is crucial to understanding what’s in your water and if it’s safe, or if you need to take additional measures to remove contaminants.

What is a water quality report?

A water quality report — also known as a drinking water quality report or a consumer confidence report (CCR) — is a document that describes the quality of drinking water in your area. The water quality of a local area impacts both public health and environmental considerations. Water quality reports aim to give consumers greater insight into the safety and quality of their drinking water by providing information such as where it came from, which contaminants are present (and at what levels), and other details.

A brief history of water quality reports

Water quality reports were first introduced in the United States through the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), passed in 1974. The Act’s goal was “to protect public health by regulating the nation’s public drinking water supply.” 

The federal government has amended the law several times to benefit consumers. An amendment on August 19, 1998, required local water systems to send each resident a report detailing what is in their water. We know this today as a drinking water report.

What information does a water quality report provide?

A water quality report will provide you with detailed information about your drinking water including:

  • The source of the water, such as whether it comes from surface or groundwater
  • Any contaminants in the water and at what concentrations, if any were found
  • The concentration of minerals and other nutrients, such as chlorine and fluoride, in the water
  • Details about local treatment processes used to ensure safe drinking water
  • Information about compliance with federal and state water regulations
  • Results from tests of disinfection byproducts and possible sources of pollution in the area
  • Any health risks associated with water contaminants, such as gastrointestinal issues and cancer
  • Tips on how to protect yourself from potential health risks related to contaminated drinking water
  • How to access more information on the water quality in your local area

How to access your local water quality report

There are two ways you can access your local water report: your local water supplier and your state’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

  1. Local water suppliers

Local water utilities and state health departments typically issue drinking water reports each year by July 1st. In addition, you can call them and inquire about your most recent water quality report.

  1. The EPA

You can also contact your state’s environmental protection agency (EPA). Each state has its own EPA website where you can use the search tool to find your water report.

How to interpret a water quality report

Water quality reports contain a lot of information and technical terms that can be challenging to interpret, but it breaks down pretty simply. 

The EPA maps out eight metrics to determine your water quality:

  1. Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG): This measure indicates the minimum level of a contaminant allowed in the water without associated health effects. As long as the value in the “Your Water” column is lower than this figure, the government indicates no known or expected risk to your health.
  2. Maximum Residual Disinfection Level Goal (MRDLG): The MRDLG indicates the minimum level of a drinking water disinfectant allowed in the water without associated health effects. Here too, if the value in the “Your Water” column is lower than this figure, you shouldn’t need to worry about associated health risks from that disinfectant.
  3. Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL): The EPA establishes this measure, which is a guideline that indicates the highest level of a contaminant permitted in your drinking water. Water treatment facilities try to set the MCL as close to the MCLG and MRDLG as possible so your water has as few contaminants and disinfectants as possible.
  4. Treatment Technique (TT): This measure indicates the required process used to reduce the level of contaminants in drinking water.
  5. Maximum Residual Disinfectant Level (MRDL): The EPA also establishes this measure, which indicates the highest level of a disinfectant allowed in your drinking water. Water treatment facilities add a certain amount of disinfectant to water to help control microbes and germs, but the amount should always be below the target number.
  6. Your Water: This measure indicates the highest level of a certain contaminant found in your water during testing.
  7. Range detected: The range detected — high and low — indicates the levels of contaminants in your drinking water. The concentration of a contaminant falls in between these two numbers.
  8. Violation: This measure indicates if a found contaminant is above the EPA’s guideline.

What to do with water quality report results

After you read your water quality report, determine if you feel concerned about any of the contaminants based on their levels. You can call your local EPA’s safe water hotline to talk through questions about contaminants. If you are sensitive to the contaminants or at higher risk for infections, you can share the information about your drinking water with your healthcare provider. Your local water supplier can also provide you with information on how to remove certain contaminants.

Even if “Your Water” has a lower contaminant level than the MCLG, you may want an extra layer of protection. Water standards frequently change to keep pace with new research and information. Some contaminants considered unsafe today were considered acceptable some years ago, and the future will likely bring similar shifts in drinking water maintenance.To enjoy peace of mind no matter how water quality standards change, you may want to install a water filter in your home. A water filter can help catch contaminants that local municipalities miss and may further lower the levels present in the water from your taps. Improving the quality and taste of your water makes it more enjoyable to drink and use daily. To learn about different types of water filters and compare systems, click around different categories such as Whole House, Drinking Water Filters, Softeners and Conditioners, and Shower Filters.