In Kentucky, public water systems serve most of the people in the state with a greater than 95% saturation rate.   Kentucky has been very successful, providing potable reliable water to almost everyone in the state!  Except for the most rural sections, if a citizen living in Kentucky wants clean drinking water they have access to it.  Kentucky public water systems have a remarkably good history of compliance.  There are challenges at existing systems and KMUA is helping its members prepare for them because - Sustainable and resilient drink water systems are essential to economically viable communities!

Kentucky has been very successful, the compliance rate with health-based standards is greater than 99.73% in Kentucky!

Kentucky’s success story includes:  Extensive Regionalization, Excellent Compliance Rates, Useful Technical Assistance Programs, and Effective Collaboration. 


A Closer Look at Kentucky

  • Kentucky has 445 public water systems in total.
  • 401 Community Public Water Systems (PWS) serve greater than 95% of the citizens of the Commonwealth. 
  • Regionalization has increased the percentage of the population served and reduced the number of drinking water systems. In 1974, there were 2,178 public water systems serving 868 communities. In contrast, in 2014, there were 444 public water systems serving 401 communities. 
  • 138 Surface Water Systems with 177 surface water intakes exist today.
  • 113 Groundwater Systems via 16 mines/springs and 220 wells. 
  • 194 (consecutive PWS systems that do not produce water, but only purchase water from other PWSs.
  • 415 Systems are interconnected (93%) 
  • Many systems that produce water also purchase water from other systems.  
  • Half of Kentucky’s Public Water Systems each serve less than 3,300 customers. 


History – How We Got Here


The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was established in 1974 to protect the quality of drinking water in the United States.  It was amended in 1986 and 1996.  SDWA authorizes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) to establish minimum standards to protect tap water and requires all owners or operators of public water systems to comply with these primate health related standards.   The EPA works with states, localities and water suppliers who carry out these standards.   The SDWA is broad and complex, requiring multiple actions to protect public health by regulating the nation’s drinking water supply, including its sources - rivers, reservoirs, and groundwater.  The SDWA does not apply to wells that serve less than 25 people. 

The SDWA requires public water systems to comply with several rules. Each rule has its own requirements, commonly tiered, based on size and source, to address various contaminants via:

  • Treatment techniques,
  • Monitoring and reporting, and 
  • Public Notice. 

The Safe Drinking Water Act establishes regulatory goals and standards that protect public health by requiring treatment of drinking water for various contaminants.  The Contaminant classes include: Microbial Organisms, Organic Chemical Po9llutants, Inorganic Pollutants, Radionuclides, Aesthetic Concerns.  Other issues covered by the SDWA include Laboratory Certification and Operator Certification criteria.  

The Kentucky Drinking Water Program, managed by the Kentucky Division of Water, has obtained “primacy” authority to implement the rules promulgated under the SDWA for Drinking Water in Kentucky.  

 For Kentucky to maintain “primacy” it must: 

  • Have regulations for contaminants regulated under the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWRs) that are no less stringent than the regulations promulgated by EPA. States have up to two years to develop regulations after EPA releases new regulations;
  • Have adopted and be implementing procedures for the enforcement of state regulations
  • Maintain an inventory of public water systems in the state;
  • Have a program to conduct sanitary surveys of the systems in the state;
  • Have a program to certify laboratories that will analyze water samples required by the regulations;
  • Have a laboratory that will serve as the state’s “principal” lab that is certified by EPA;
  • Have a program to ensure that new or modified systems will be capable of complying with state primary drinking water regulations;
  • Have adequate enforcement authority to compel water systems to comply with NPDWRs;
  • Have adequate record keeping and reporting requirements and have the ability to assess penalties for violations;
  • Have adequate variances and have an adequate plan to provide for safe drinking water in emergencies like a natural disaster; and 
  • Have adopted authority to assess administrative penalties for violations of its approved primacy program.


The Success Story Of Public Water Systems

In addition to saturating the state map with drinking water lines, well in advance of Governor Patton’s 2020 goal, public water system health-based violations have remained low and constant and reached a critical low in 2012.  Kentucky has been very successful, the compliance rate with health-based standards is greater than 99.73% in Kentucky!    

The 2015 Health Based Violation Types consisted of: 

  • Stage One Disinfectants and Disinfection Byproducts Rule, Carbon, 3%,
  • Stage 2 Disinfectants and Disinfectants Byproducts Rule, HAA5 (Haloacetic acids), 47%,
  • Stage 2 Disinfectants and Disinfection Byproducts Rule, TTHM (Trihalomethanes), 36%, 
  • Surface Water Treatment Rules, 3%, and 
  • Total Coliform Rule, 3%. 


Technical Assistance is Available to Kentucky’s Water Systems

The Kentucky Division of Water offers Capacity Development and Compliance Assistance with the goal of maintaining a robust, resilient and sustainable Public Water System for the Commonwealth.  DOW works with public water utilities to ensure that they have or are developing Financial, Managerial and Technical Capacity to continuously conduct proper operations and maintenance of the water utility.   Technical Assistance is designed to optimize treatment, manager the distribution system, compliance reporting and provide proper public notice. 


Collaboration:  The Drinking Water Advisory Council (DWAC) 

DWAC is a group of industry, science, public health and utilities experts that provide advice and input to the Kentucky Division of Water in a collaborative effort to improve the drinking water and its safety across the state.  The Kentucky Division of Water has created the Drinking Water Advisory Council to address water system needs.  Several KMUA members participate on the Council. KMUA urges more involvement from member managers in this important endeavor. A list of participants is below:  

  • Public Water Systems (small, medium and large);   
  • Kentucky Municipal Utilities Association (KMUA);
  • Kentucky Rural Community Assistance Program (RCAP);
  • Kentucky League of Cities (KLC); 
  • Kentucky Association of Counties (KACO);
  • Kentucky Department of Health; 
  • Kentucky Rural Water Association (KRWA);
  • Kentucky Infrastructure Authority (KIA); 
  • Public Service Commission (PSC);
  • Area Development Districts (ADD);
  • American Water Works Association (AWWA); and  
  • American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC). 

Within the Drinking Water Advisory Council (DWAC) there are Eight (8) Committees that work under the DWAC umbrella to address issue of importance to DOW, drinking water utilities and companies.  Those are:

  1. Infrastructure, Finance and Sustainability Committee;
  2. Compliance/Regulations Committee;
  3. Lead in Drinking Water Workgroup;
  4. Capacity Development Committee;
  5. Distribution/Water Quality Management Workgroup;
  6. Disinfection Byproducts Committee;
  7. Source Water Protection Committee; and 
  8. Emerging Issues Committee (e.g. HAB’s, UCMR 3 & 4.) 


What are Kentucky’s Drinking Water Challenges Looking Forward?

1. Continued Rule Compliance with new rules, Disinfection Byproducts Rule (DPBs), Revised Total Coliform Rules (RTCR), (Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), and emerging contaminants. 

2. Operations, Management and Finance challenges pertaining to rates and debt service.   Servicing debt and bringing an essential service to the community at the lowest price possible continues to be a challenge for many city-owned systems as increasing drinking water rates is not always politically feasible.  According the KY DOW, the average monthly drinking water bill is:

Average fee for 4,000 gallons (non-municipal) is $32.24
Average fee for 4,000 gallons (municipal inside city limits) is $26.70
Average fee for 4,000 gallons (municipal outside the city limits) is $33.41

3. Asset Management, Financial Sustainability and Funding: 

The average age of the 213 drinking water treatment plants in Kentucky is 36 years.  The aging infrastructure presents challenges.  There are 1,842 storage tanks in Kentucky and the average age is 38 years old. There are 58,783 miles of water lines with an average age of 38 years.  Of that number, 11,607 miles are more than 50 years old.  That means that 16% of the water lines in Kentucky are more than 5 decades old.  Many Public Water Systems are experiencing little or no growth and numerous systems are experiencing declining growth.  The cost for small systems to sustain infrastructure and operate in compliance with federal rules is in some cases an unsustainable economic burden.  Medium and large systems are also challenged by low growth and the “conservation conundrum,” which results in little growth in customer base and declining per capita consumption. 

More infrastructure costs spread over fewer gallons of water sold can result in a cash-flow bind, which forces systems to borrow more money and/or increase rates.  Water is a high, fixed-cost business, and public expectations as well as regulations require utilities to stay ahead of the capacity curve.  The capacity curve is generally 15-20% excess capacity to address future growth, emergency or peak drinking water demands. 

As demand declines, many utilities have reserve capacities that exceed 15%, however the customer rate base must fund the operation and maintenance, capital, depreciation, and debt service of this overbuilt infrastructure.  Some estimate 6-10% annual utility rate increases of the next decade until this phenomenon corrects itself.  Worse yet, inflation may exasperate this situation or extend the time frame to 20 years

4.  Compliance Challenges include: 

  • Disinfection Byproducts, which affects many of Kentucky’s Public Water Systems and the systems’ treatment and distribution system management.  It is expected that in 3-5 years this issue will be resolved.  
  • Revised Total Coliform Rule Implementation: Public Water Systems are working with new sampling plans and protocols that have created a learning curve.
  • Lead and Copper Rule: Kentucky has an excellent compliance record with this rule, but post Flint, Michigan the EPA is expected to make rule changes impacting action levels, sampling, public schools and public notice.   Currently the Lead Working Group is evaluating the Kentucky program. 
  • Emerging Contaminants and New Rules. According to the U.S. Geological Survey website, “These “emerging contaminants” or “contaminants of emerging concern” are commonly derived from municipal, agricultural, and industrial wastewater sources and pathways. These newly recognized contaminants represent a shift in traditional thinking as many are produced industrially yet are dispersed to the environment from domestic, commercial, and industrial uses. The major goal of the Contaminants of Emerging Concern in the Environment Investigation is to provide information on these compounds for evaluation of their potential threat to environmental and human health.”


How Can Kentucky Ensure a Reliable, Safe, Sustainable Drinking Water Infrastructure?

Adequately maintaining the existing infrastructure, while expanding the infrastructure as needed for growth and economic development is the first critical goal.  Secondly, opportunities for regionalization and consolidation to improve the economies of scale must be evaluated and in cases where they make sense – executed.   Finally, empowering the necessary authorities and appropriate standards while securing adequate funding are all essential elements to maintaining and expanding a reliable and sustainable drinking water system in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. 


  1. Peter Goodman, Director, Division of Water, November 3, 2016, IJC for Natural Resources and the Environment.
  2. www.USGS.com  /  www.EPA.com