Water Quality & Emerging Contaminants

Why It Matters

The quality and safety of the water we provide has a direct impact on our customers and therefore our business; water is the only utility product that we ingest, and we must do everything we can to protect the quality of the water our customers consume. Stakeholders agree that Water Quality is paramount, as high water quality is vital to protecting our customers, fortifying public health and exhibiting environmental leadership. In recent years, public concern regarding water contaminants has grown significantly. This is driven by recent crises such as the lead contamination of the drinking water supply in Flint, Michigan and Chicago, Illinois; harmful algal blooms that produce cyanotoxins and require Do Not Drink advisories; and increases in plastic particulates, pharmaceuticals and chemicals associated with old infrastructure entering the environment and water supplies. Water utilities face increasing pressure and regulation to effectively manage water quality and emerging contaminants.


Our Approach

To help ensure our customers can trust the water we bring to their homes and businesses, we develop and execute extensive quality practices that go beyond baseline regulations and standards.

While the U.S. government, state governments and environmental and public health regulators set and enforce standards in our industry, we take responsibility for the quality of the water that flows to customers’ properties.

Testing the quality of the water

We are at the forefront of monitoring and controlling microbial, chemical and radiological contaminants, and we consistently perform better than drinking water compliance standards and ahead of regulator-established deadlines.

We are experts in water quality, testing and treatment. We perform more than one million water quality tests per year at our water-testing laboratories and other facilities. We consistently outperform state and federal drinking water and wastewater standards in comparison to industry averages. We have a reputation among both internal and external stakeholders for maintaining water quality significantly better than regulatory standards and guidelines. We do well, by doing good.

Key Emerging Contaminants

Name What is it? What are the risks? How does American Water manage this contaminant?


Naturally occurring microorganisms (also known as blue-green algae).

High concentrations can form harmful algal blooms (HABs), which can have negative environmental and health effects, leading to Do Not Drink orders for municipal water supplies.

We use a combination of measures including monitoring, managing supplies, deploying mixing technology and in some reservoir locations, deploying the latest ultrasonic technology to prevent HABs in water sources.


Lead is generally not found in water supplies leaving water treatment plants but can leach into water from premise plumbing. Sources of potential lead exposure include lead service lines (LSLs), lead solder and lead-bearing plumbing fixtures present.

Elevated levels of lead in drinking water pose a potential risk, particularly to children and fetuses, possibly causing developmental issues.

Our lead mitigation strategy includes multiple layers. First, we treat water to be of good and stable water quality. We routinely monitor water quality through the distribution system. We continually communicate, educate and work with customers on steps to minimize their potential exposure to lead. With our expertise, we work with state legislatures, policy-makers and other stakeholders to endorse the comprehensive replacement of LSLs to protect public health.


Legionella bacteria exist naturally in soils and water, but their levels can be especially high in man-made building water systems where warm water stagnates in the absence of adequate disinfectants.

In North America and Europe Legionella pneumophila is the most common cause of human disease. In severe cases (known as legionnaires disease) pneumonia can occur with death rates from 2.9%–33%.

We follow all guidelines for treating and disinfecting drinking water and accompany this with regular sampling to monitor overall water quality. In addition, through external funding, we are leading various efforts to develop sampling, detection and communications strategies for Legionella and other opportunistic pathogens.


PFAS are a class of compounds that include perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). These are manufactured chemicals used in various consumer products for their nonstick properties. PFAS have been detected at elevated concentrations in both ground and surface waters.

PFOA and PFOS have been linked to various toxicity issues and, once detected, are difficult to remove from the environment.

We have a cross-functional team focused on the scientific and regulatory framework related to PFAS detection and technologies for removal. Our research group is active in externally funded projects related to the detection, occurrence and removal of PFAS compounds.


Our water and wastewater systems comply with federal and state regulations developed under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and other statutes. We follow all EPA monitoring requirements for emerging contaminants. To track our environmental compliance and stewardship efforts, we adopted a comprehensive Environmental Policy that covers water quality and safety and promotes the effective use and stewardship of the natural water supply.

We also collaborate with U.S. EPA, research foundations and universities to examine where issues may exist in our systems and the policies that can help manage potential issues.


We manage Water Quality & Emerging Contaminants through three separate but interconnected entities: Corporate, our internal audit program and our state utility companies. State utility companies are our first line of defense for water quality. Our employees understand local regulations and dynamics, helping our states make the best decisions for ensuring water quality. Our Corporate program is our second line of defense, which includes our technical expertise on water quality and emerging contaminants and additional levels of governance and leadership. These additional resources allow for increased consistency and accountability to ensure safe and reliable water and wastewater service to customers. The last line of defense is our internal audit program, whereby employees audit our operations and report at least quarterly to our Board’s Safety, Environmental, Technology & Operations Committee.

We also link all employee performance assessments to water quality by comparing our water quality numbers to our industry peers.

SASB IF-WU-250a.2

Drinking Water

Our operational practices outline how and when states will develop their water-sampling schedules to test for contaminants. Each month, the Vice President of Operations in each state certifies the results of these samples and reports them to his or her respective state President and our Director of Environmental Compliance and Stewardship. These layers of review help us maintain our rigorous quality standards and give our customers confidence that the water they consume is our best.

We also participate in the Partnership for Safe Water, the U.S. EPA’s voluntary program to meet more stringent goals for protection against microbial contamination through treatment optimization, and are proud of our accomplishments:

  • Our facilities account for approximately 20% of the participating plants nationwide (approximately 90 plants out of about 400).
  • Our facilities represent approximately 30% of the treatment plants receiving the program’s Phase III Director Award (69 plants) with the majority of our systems having sustained the award for 10 Years (62 plants) or 15 Years (58 plants). Three plants received the 20-Year Award in 2018.
  • Pennsylvania American Water accounts for almost 25% of the plants receiving the President’s Award (nine plants out of 41 total).
  • AWE’s Military Services Group (MSG) accounts for approximately 22% of the systems receiving the Phase III Director Award for Distribution Systems (five out of 23 systems). Additionally, two MSG systems were recognized for Five-Year Directors Awards for Distribution System Operations.

Furthermore, we participate in the Lead Service Line (LSL) Replacement Collaborative (lslr-collaborative.org), a joint effort of 25 national public health, water utility, environmental, labor, consumer, housing and state and local governmental organizations. The LSL Replacement Collaborative’s goal is to accelerate full removal of lead pipes providing drinking water to millions of American homes. We continue to look for better ways to maximize drinking water quality protection and improve the efficiency of LSL replacement.


To better understand contaminants, we equip our labs with state-of-the-art technologies for measuring water quality constituents at our Central Laboratory and Water Research Laboratories. We continually investigate new substances and contaminants to identify threats to our water supply, act on emerging regulations and new health advisories, and evaluate the benefits of alternative or advanced treatment technologies. Our Environmental and Operational Excellence group includes the Water Research Group, and is comprised of scientists with backgrounds in chemistry, engineering and microbiology, and half with Ph.Ds.

For more than three decades from its inception, our research and development (R&D) program has evolved into an industry leading water-related research program, achieving advancements in the science of drinking water and wastewater. We identify and control new contaminants of concern before new regulations go into effect. Our research lab differentiates us from our peers, with in-house scientific and engineering experts who hold relationships with external governmental, industry and environmental groups.

Also, our research lab is currently piloting several treatment technologies that improve our efficiency. One new process uses ion exchange to target contaminants of concern and comply with health advisories and regulations on PFAs and other contaminants, while also reducing our costs.

Another example of our advanced technology is how we monitor our extensive infrastructure network. What once was an extremely time-intensive process is now an expedited process that does not compromise quality. Mapping software such as Geographic Information System (GIS), machine learning technologies and drones make it easier to monitor our water infrastructure and protect water quality. Please see our Water Infrastructure section for more.

Finally, we adopted a new and innovative method to compile and update contaminant information for our drinking water sources. The GIS map-based tool, WaterSuite, collects information about potential sources of contamination from various data sources and pulls it into a single, updatable contaminant information database for a defined area of interest.

Water testing plant

Contingency & Communications Planning

Water utilities can develop strategies to understand and manage risks to source water supplies, but no water utility can prevent the occurrence of chemical releases, power outages or natural disasters. It is essential to have Emergency Response Plans in order to help facilities respond to a wide variety of potential emergency situations. Our facilities have Emergency Response Plans in place. For the safety and security of our water systems nationwide, these plans are kept confidential, based on bioterrorism laws.

In the event of a water-related risk or threat, our alert system, CodeRED, is a high-speed mass notification system to keep customers informed about water-related emergencies. Customers receive notifications through automated phone calls, text and e-mail. Alerts sent through the CodeRED system are available on the “Alert Notifications” page on our individual websites, along with a map of the impacted area.

Customers can ensure we can contact them quickly in the event of an emergency by logging on to our web self-service portal and confirming or updating their contact information.

Our expansive team of scientists, engineers and public health professionals is dedicated to researching water quality and technology-water source monitoring, and collaborating with water research foundations.

SASB IF-WU-140b.2

Source Water & Effluents

Even with strong systems in place, our water sources can still face contamination from urban storm water runoff, potential sources of pollution located upstream and algal blooms. These pollutants have the potential to impact entire rivers and watersheds, and endanger the health of the populations we serve. We recognize the threats posed by aging infrastructure, trace pharmaceuticals in wastewater, hospital effluents and antibiotic-resistant genes to water quality. Our scientists test water samples from across the country to protect against hazardous chemicals, algae, metals, minerals, microbes and other potential contaminants. Online sensors and analyzers also monitor the water as it passes through our systems.

For each of our surface water sources, we identify potential sources of significant contamination from upstream areas contributing water to our system. This includes an assessment of available data for chemicals that may be used, stored and transported through the area. We have installed source water monitoring systems to detect changes in surface water quality that may indicate the presence of possible contamination. Each monitoring panel is equipped with a variety of probes to measure parameters including pH, conductivity, Oxidation-Reduction Potential (ORP), UV254, dissolved oxygen, algae (chlorophyll), ammonia and oil in water. The selection of the type of probes used depends on the potential sources of significant contamination. At each system we implemented continuous monitoring and established a baseline with one year of water quality data which allows us to enact triggers and alerts when anomalies are detected in the source water. We partner with other utilities and organizations to conduct monitoring as part of larger river networks, such as those along the Delaware and Ohio Rivers. In the event that we detect a potential contaminant, our surface water plants have contingency plans in place to respond. These components all work together to minimize potential impacts from contamination of a drinking water supply.

We also conduct research in rivers and watersheds by having probes sample water for contaminants within water bodies and near our intakes. We are also conducting education efforts to bring attention to the threat of contaminants of emerging concern. Our expansive team of scientists, engineers and public health professionals are dedicated to researching water quality and technology-water source monitoring, and collaborating with water research foundations.


From 2015–2018 we had an annual Notice of Violation (NOV) target, as part of our company-wide Annual Performance Plan. This target required us to provide drinking water quality 20x over the industry average, equating to six systems with NOVs or fewer each year. Our overall drinking water performance is provided below.


Our Performance

In 2017 and 2018 our performance continues to improve. For both years, we only received two acute health and four non-acute health based notices; the remaining notifications are non-health based.

2015 2016 2017 2018
U.S. Drinking Water Industry U.S. Systems in Violation 19,193 19,059 18,542 17,499
U.S. Total Systems 50,546 50,059 50,259 50,132
Percentage 38% 38% 37% 35%
American Water American Water Systems 339 336 341 326
Theoretical No. Systems with NOVs (Based on U.S. Percentage) 129 128 126 114
American Water Systems with Drinking Water NOVs1 10 6 27 10
Times Better than Rest of Water Industry 13 21 5 11

1Drinking Water NOVs include: acute health based, non-acute health based, and non-health based violations. Metrics provided exclude new systems acquired in the same year and third party violations.

We have multiple means by which we drive environmental performance. For drinking water, we compare ourselves against the industry average for meeting drinking water compliance and have consistently outperformed the industry average. For wastewater, we set goals to reduce the number of overflows and times that we are not able to meet end of pipe discharge limits. However, to drive Environmental Leadership we must focus on both leading and lagging indicators.

  • Leading indicators such as: internal audits, peer to peer reviews, training, adherence to scheduled maintenance, advanced data analytics, etc.
  • Lagging indicators such as: Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) exceedances, tracking of Health Advisory Limit (HALs) exceedances, meeting all regulatory limits, etc.