Water Security and Preparedness

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the mailing of anthrax-laced letters along the East Coast upped the ante for agencies that provide public services, including water. But efforts to secure the nation’s water supply go back to the Clinton years. And in the past decade, the water utility sector has made many voluntary advances to protect drinking water.

Federal oversight of the nation’s drinking water was formalized in the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) of 1974. When that act was amended in 1996, President Clinton issued an order to protect critical infrastructure, including water supply systems. The President’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection later named three imperatives for water: It must be available on demand, supplied with enough pressure, and safe to use.

In a widespread emergency, “If you don’t have a reliable water supply, you have difficulty providing mass care and shelter,” says policy and legislative affairs manager Bridget O’Grady of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators. “There’s no water to drink, no water for sanitation, hospitals can’t treat or perform surgery on the wounded. You’ve got to have a reliable water source to recover and return to a viable condition.”

In 1997, the commission found that drinking water systems were vulnerable to chemical and biological contamination and that technology was not robust enough to detect, identify, measure, and treat toxic, waterborne contaminants. Not only that, but water utilities, which increasingly relied on computers to maintain flow, pressure, and chemical treatment levels, were found to be susceptible to cyberattacks. More recently, a large Southern California water system hired a computer hacker to explore potential vulnerabilities, and in the course of a single day his team was able to gain access to equipment controlling chemical additives to drinking water, and with it control over the safety of water for millions of homes.

In response to the 1997 commission report, a public/private partnership was created in 1998 to improve the security of water systems and other critical infrastructure. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was chosen to head these efforts. It remains the lead agency on water security, working jointly with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Post-9/11 Requirements

September 11 heightened awareness of threats to the water supply. Before that, most efforts were focused on cybersecurity. The 2002 Bioterrorism Act (officially known as the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002) required water systems serving more than 3,300 people to assess vulnerability and draft emergency response plans and submit them to EPA.

No federal funding was tied to these requirements, though EPA has provided grants to water utilities for its Water Security Initiative, whose purpose is to increase the ability of water systems to detect contaminants, intentional or unintentional (it is discussed in more detail below). DHS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have other rules that localities must comply with to receive federal money.

Nearly all of the nation’s affected water systems have complied with the vulnerability assessment and emergency response requirements, estimates Kevin Morley, security and preparedness program manager for the American Water Works Association (AWWA), which represents water utilities.

“We feel [the assessments were] a great benefit to us,” says Jeff Swertfeger, assistant superintendent, water quality and treatment for Greater Cincinnati Water Works (GCWW), which serves 1.1 million customers in greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. “By doing these assessments in an organized fashion, we were able to take a close look at our system and make improvements.”

Counter-terrorism and Natural Disasters

More recently, and especially given natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, water systems have looked beyond terrorist threats and taken an “all hazards” approach to security preparations. They recognize four types of threats: intentional, natural, accidental, and dependency, such as a power outage, equipment failure, or line break.

“Nine times out of ten, you’re going to be dealing with Mother Nature,” says the AWWA’s Morley. Though it’s important to be vigilant about possible attacks on water and wastewater systems, those are not the chief threat most systems are likely to face.

North Carolina often feels the brunt of powerful hurricanes, and the water sector has adapted. “Lessons learned from weather events have helped our evolving emergency planning and response, just as 9/11 has,” says Patricia Lamb, preparedness manager for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities, which serves some 774,000 customers. “We have refined our emergency staffing plans, and past events have also helped us identify what physical backup systems need to be installed, in order of priority.”

Long before 9/11, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities viewed water and wastewater treatment as essential, around-the-clock services, says Lamb. So it has long had a comprehensive emergency management plan in place to address potential threats, manmade or natural. The plan is “revised as emerging threats arise, after actual events, and after exercises are held to test our planning and responses,” Lamb says.


Since 9/11, the utility has made structural improvements and also changed some processes. But most important, says Lamb, “are the relationships we’ve developed with public safety and public health representatives at the local, state, and national level and the contacts we maintain in the public water/sewer utility sector.”

Cooperation with local police, fire, and health departments and state and federal agencies help utilities ensure their responses are as effective as possible. Greater Cincinnati Water Works, for example, uses a DHS program for practices ranging from table-top scenario exercises to multi-state, full-scale drills, says Swertfeger.

Among themselves, water utilities are coming up with best practices that any utility can tailor to fit its circumstances. After Hurricane Floyd struck in 1999, North Carolina’s AWWA/Water Environment Agency section formed a disaster preparedness committee. This, coupled with the City of Charlotte’s active involvement in preparedness and inclusion of the water sector in emergency management planning, has thrust Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities into a leadership role to the extent that it often makes recommendations for other water utilities, says Lamb.

Beyond Regulation

In 2005, the Water Security Work Group of the National Drinking Water Advisory Council--created as part of the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act--drew up the “Features of an Active and Effective Protective Program.” The recommendations were distilled and updated for the joint EPA-DHS Sector Specific Plan for Water in May 2007.

The main goal is to maintain continuous service by helping utilities to:

  • create a culture that recognizes the importance of security, 
  • prioritize steps to achieve or maintain security,
  • use methods for detecting contamination, and
  • regularly assess vulnerabilities and respond accordingly.

An expanded version was created in mid-2010 in the American National Standards Institute (ANSI)/AWWA G430: Security Practices for Operations and Management. It sets the minimum requirements for utilities to promote employee safety and public health, safety and confidence. The practices can be applied to any water or wastewater facility, regardless of size or location, says the AWWA’s Morley.

Water Security Initiative

Right after 9/11, many water systems put guards at their reservoirs--but having a human presence 24 hours a day is expensive. So utilities began to build security into their upgrades and their company culture, adding intrusion alarms, security cameras, and monitoring devices.

Medium and large water systems are estimated to have spent millions or even tens of millions of dollars on improvements to physical security, says Dan Schmelling, environmental engineer and project coordinator for EPA’s Water Security Initiative. But when every place with a toilet offers access to the system, more is needed to detect contaminants.

In response to 9/11, EPA launched a Water Security Initiative designed to detect contaminants. The program is in the initial phases, with Greater Cincinnati serving as the pilot, followed by water utilities in New York City, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Dallas. EPA--which has assisted the utilities with grants of $9.5 million to $12 million, with the utilities providing a 20-percent match--will assess the results before crafting recommendations and guidance that can be used elsewhere.

At Greater Cincinnati Water Works, the program “goes well beyond the usual testing” that water utilities do many times a day to ensure quality, says Swertfeger. “It also includes enhanced security measures, such as intrusion detection, online water-quality monitoring, grab sampling and analysis, public health surveillance in conjunction with local health departments, and special tools to assist our customer call information.” (Grab sampling is a type of wastewater sampling where all the test material is collected at once instead of over a period such as 24 hours, enabling faster response to potential issues.)

For contaminant detection, a utility would need to set a baseline for water-quality monitoring, says EPA’s Schmelling. That could include chlorine levels, conductivity, UV absorption, and carbon. Any significant change in the baseline could potentially indicate contamination. And utilities may be able to use unusual spikes in customer complaints to send automated alerts to managers to investigate.

WARN’s Cooperative Program

After the massive destruction wrought by the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011, everyone is wondering how well water utilities here would be able to respond to a disaster or intentional contamination. Even smaller-scale disasters could be enough to knock out water service in many places.

That’s where mutual assistance among utilities could help. In the U.S., the water sector has a tradition of mutual aid that dates to the early 1940s. Today, mutual aid--which spans human knowledge and expertise as well as the provision of appropriate equipment and labor--has been formalized into the Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network (WARN).

WARN is divided into 10 regions of the country, covering every state. There is no overarching entity that heads up WARN. Rather, utilities from every area formally agree to cooperate in the event of a disaster.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities was the lead utility in the development of North Carolina’s WARN, called NCWaterWARN. It’s been active since 2008 and has taken part in exercises and events by the North Carolina Emergency Operations Center (EOC) whenever the center has activated an emergency response, says Lamb.

Since 2008, North Carolina Emergency Management has recognized NCWaterWARN as a State Emergency Response Team member, which means that during activation of emergency response, NCWaterWARN has a representative at the state EOC. The representative helps to coordinate assessments and response within the water sector. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities has taken part in statewide exercises for earthquake and infrastructure response planning.

Getting Ready

It’s clear from the tragedy in Japan that sometimes you can be well prepared and still be caught short. But for most emergencies, “the biggest problem is that people fail to prepare themselves,” says the AWWA’s Morley. Having a 72-hour supply of food, water, and medicines on hand is “the best thing any citizen can do.” For water, that means three gallons per person per day.

The Association of State Drinking Water Administrators partnered with EPA in 2009 to create a water emergency discussion guide, a step-by-step plan that encourages water utilities to host a one-day “no-holds-barred critical discussion with customers,” says the ASDWA’s O’Grady. The guide was tested in Evanston, Ill., but has been scaled down and made as turnkey as possible to serve communities with populations of 10,000 to 50,000 or so. The daylong events are meant to boost awareness of the issues surrounding water that can arise during an emergency, and to help communities become more resilient in the face of such emergencies.

Being prepared saves money in the long run. “It takes a huge amount of pressure off the emergency management community,” says Morley. “If [emergency responders] knew they had a little breathing room, they could focus their resources in a different way. It buys time.”


For More Information

Preparedness for Everyone

Emergency Preparedness for Businesses

Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network

Water Security Features

Water security initiative pilots

Association of State Drinking Water Administrators’ “Security Notes”

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