Researchers recently completed a study demonstrating that taking local geography into account would result in water-quality testing that not only is at least as effective as current federal testing, but also less expensive, so that resources could be used to test for a wider range of contaminants in more communities. Their conclusion: Water-quality monitoring needs to be tailor-made for each community.

If you were to break your leg and be admitted to a hospital, would you want to receive the same tests as a neighboring patient being treated for pneumonia?

Of course not, but a similar situation occurs when federal Safe Drinking Water Act regulations – which often ignore local water conditions and history – are applied to many U.S. towns, says Raj Rajagopal, geography professor in the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Water-quality monitoring needs to be tailor-made for each community, according to Ed Brands, UI adjunct assistant professor of geography and international programs, and Rajagopal, who recently completed a three-part study, "Economics of Place-based Monitoring under the Safe Drinking Water Act.".

The study indicated that the use of place-based monitoring by taking local geography into account would result in testing that would be at least as effective as current testing, but also less expensive, so that valuable financial and human resources could be used to test for a wider range of contaminants in more communities. In addition, place-based monitoring could be applied to other environmental issues, including air, soil and biological safety.

"This series of papers has the potential to revolutionize environmental law," says Rajagopal. "This is the first time that the value of place has been articulated within the context of environmental law. In that sense, this is pioneering work."

In the case of Safe Drinking Water Act monitoring, the UI study looked at 19 Iowa community water supplies influenced by surface water. Noting that testing for bacteria is outside the scope of the study, Brands explains that surface water is easily contaminated by agricultural sources, as shown by several decades of data collected by community water systems, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

"Based on several decades of historical data, we came up with 19 different lists of the contaminants we would expect to find in each of the 19 communities. Our results raised a question," says Brands. "Why test for all 90-plus contaminants regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act when testing for five or six will do? We can save money by focusing on contaminants historically found, and use the extra funding to look at a wider range of contaminants more often, and in more communities."

Brands and Rajagopal reveal: "Place-based monitoring out-performed the Safe Drinking Water Act monitoring requirements in terms of percent detections, missed only a small proportion of detections below the 50 percent of the maximum contaminant level (MCL) set by the EPA, and captured all detections above 50 percent of the MCL. Essentially, the same information obtained from current compliance monitoring requirements can be gained at approximately one-eighth the cost by implementing place-based monitoring."

Although 11 contaminants were detected at levels of greater than 20 percent of the MCL, the chemicals most often found were the agriculture-related nitrate (most commonly from nitrogen fertilizer) and the widely applied herbicide atrazine.

The 19 public waters systems selected for study were: Bedford, Bloomfield, Boone, Cedar Rapids, Centerville, Clarinda, Council Bluffs, Iowa City, Keokuk, Lamoni, Madrid, Montezuma, Osceola, Oskaloosa, Ottumwa, Panora, Rock Rapids, Spencer and Spirit Lake.

Rajagopal noted that the papers on safe drinking water could serve as a model for revising the monitoring methods for other, similar laws.

"When you look at U.S. environmental protection, you find there are about 12 major laws, such as the Superfund law of 1980 aimed at cleaning up hazardous waste sites. Knowledge of place should be taken into account in the Environmental Protection Agency's administering of all of them," he asserts.

Brands says that the study is based upon several decades of water quality data collected by local, state, and federal governments. In 2005, Rajagopal, serving as principal investigator, and Brands, as project manager, completed a four-year Iowa water quality study funded by a $394,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Place-based monitoring was part of the work completed under the USDA grant. The study found that periodic monitoring of only five or less suspected pollutants, depending upon the geography and history of the particular area, would be as accurate as and more cost-effective than conventional monitoring of more than 90 substances. The study also found that by studying seasonal timing of high nitrate concentrations, monitoring strategies can be devised to better estimate the highest concentrations in drinking water supplies.

The study, "Economics of Place-based Monitoring under the Safe Drinking Water Act," is available in electronic version at: