Detections in Drinking Water: 3 Cost Factors for Municipalities


For municipalities, ensuring that drinking water is safe and meets or exceeds water quality standards is paramount.  Contaminated drinking water can have severe negative impacts on water systems. Not only does it erode public trust in the water supplier and local government, but it may also require the shutdown of affected wells, causing service disruptions and requiring municipalities to seek alternative, sometimes expensive, water supplies. Communities rely on clean, safe water for their daily needs, and any indication of contamination can lead to skepticism and concern. Rebuilding public trust becomes a significant challenge for municipalities, necessitating transparency, effective communication, and swift action to rectify the situation.

The cost of treating contaminated drinking water can be very high, often in the millions of dollars. This expense is not limited to the design and construction of new treatment technology, as water providers must also account for staffing and upkeep of the facilities for years into the future, not to mention ongoing testing to ensure that they are functioning properly. Unfortunately, since most water suppliers do not have the funds readily available to cover these projects, the cost is often passed on to ratepayers in the form of higher water rates. However, there are alternative cost recovery strategies available, enabling water systems to seek to hold polluters accountable for the cost of cleaning up contamination. In this blog post, we will delve into the financial challenges faced by municipalities as they navigate water contamination concerns, and the steps they can take to mitigate them.

The 3 cost factors to account for following contamination detection

The first cost factor many municipalities will consider is the design and installation of the water treatment facility or equipment. In the case of treatment for emerging contaminants, a water provider’s existing filtration system may not be suited for removal of the chemicals. The initial investment costs to design and build treatment facilities can be substantial. Additionally, water providers must plan for staff training and hiring of experts to ensure effective and efficient operation.

Second, water systems may also need to explore alternative water sources in the event that affected wells must be removed from the water supply until treatment can be completed. The costs associated with purchasing or securing these additional sources need to be carefully evaluated.

Third, it is crucial to keep in mind the cost of upkeep of infrastructure as well as ongoing monitoring. As with any equipment, filtration systems installed for PFAS cleanup or removal of other contaminants will require regular maintenance and repairs to ensure optimal functioning of treatment facilities. Worn-out parts will need to be replaced periodically, and, depending on the treatment type, various media such as resin will need to be disposed of and replaced. Upgrades may be needed from time to time to continue to meet evolving regulations. As shown by the proposed updates to the EPA’s PFAS regulations in 2023, drinking water standards often become more stringent over time as testing and treatment technologies improve.

Investing in water treatment infrastructure

When assessing the costs related to the design and installation of a treatment facility, there are several important factors for municipalities to consider. Before beginning the design and construction process, systems must evaluate and procure advanced treatment technologies that best fit their unique situations. The most effective treatment methods vary depending on the specific contaminants detected. Filtration equipment that works for PFAS will not work for 1,4-dioxane, for example.

Water providers seeking to remove PFAS contamination can choose from multiple state-of-the-art treatment technologies, each with its own benefits and challenges. Granular activated carbon (GAC), ion exchange (IX), and reverse osmosis (RO) are three of the most popular filtration methods currently used for PFAS cleanup, but there are other emerging technologies that may prove effective as well. While the most effective treatment systems may be more expensive up front, investing in the best technology from the start may help water systems become better prepared for shifting regulations in the future.  

It is also important to keep in mind that the cost of the water treatment system itself is only part of the initial investment. The cost of professional installation, training existing staff on the maintenance and operation of the new equipment, and hiring experts will add to the total cost. Budgeting for these expenses is essential for effective contamination mitigation.

Compliance with PFAS regulations: Upkeep and monitoring

The EPA has announced plans to implement MCLs for several PFAS compounds by late 2023 or early 2024. To comply with impending PFAS regulations and ensure the ongoing safety of drinking water, ongoing monitoring and testing of water sources will be necessary even after treatment systems have been installed. Budgeting for these activities is essential to maintain compliance with water quality standards.

Systems will also need to conduct periodic inspections and audits of treatment facilities to maintain adherence to regulations. These activities come with their own associated costs, such as conducting comprehensive facility assessments, implementing necessary upgrades to meet evolving regulations, and maintaining accurate record-keeping systems.

The costs of continued testing for PFAS for years to come can add up quickly since PFAS testing is significantly more complex and difficult compared to testing for other common contaminants. PFAS sampling and analysis require specialized training and tools due to the high potential for contamination of samples as well as the chemical and toxicological difference among individual PFAS compounds.

Securing additional water sources for contamination risk mitigation

Even if appropriate treatment systems are installed as quickly as possible after contaminant detection, water providers may still need to explore options for alternative water sources. Local households and businesses depend on a steady, reliable supply of clean water, and even brief disruptions can have serious, lasting effects on the community and public trust in the water system. To address this issue, water suppliers can explore partnerships to share water resources, reducing the reliance on a single source. Analysis of the feasibility of such collaborations and their associated costs should form part of each system’s budgeting process for contamination management.

If a municipality’s situation requires that a water source be taken out of service for an extended period, then it may need to pursue long-term contracts or agreements with multiple water suppliers. The costs and benefits of such arrangements must be thoroughly evaluated to ensure a reliable and cost-effective water supply.

Because each water system’s situation is unique, involving distinct challenges and opportunities, it is beneficial to develop a strategic plan to diversify water supply sources for risk reduction. The process of creating a strategic plan often involves hiring experts and contractors, as well as utilizing significant staff time. This results in a significant expense for the system.

Overcoming Financial Challenges in the Wake of Drinking Water Detections

Addressing the financial challenges posed by contamination detections is important to maintain a safe drinking water supply. As new regulations are enacted for emerging contaminants such as PFAS, municipalities must be prepared for the high costs of treating water to remain in compliance with standards, as well as the ongoing costs of treatment equipment maintenance, water quality testing, and securing additional water sources. While these costs may cause financial stress for many municipalities, there are alternatives to passing the expense along to ratepayers.

By holding chemical manufacturers responsible for polluting drinking water, municipalities can seek to recover the funds needed to cover the immediate and ongoing costs of contamination. Download our PFAS Cost Recovery Guide to learn how your municipality can seek to recover costs and effectively manage contamination incidents, restoring water quality and maintaining public trust.