Protecting water supplies always has been a priority for local utilities, but since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a host of natural disasters have reminded communities that terrorists are not the only threats to water systems. Water utilities have shifted their security plans from a terrorism focus to an approach that considers all hazards. “A lot of the response and readiness we put in place for terrorist threats work really well for other emergencies,” says Jim McDaniel, water system chief operating officer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. “[We've] retooled some of those things to make them better for security, but I think the return we'll see is that they will work better for so many disasters.”

The increased emphasis on water security, along with a shift toward protection from all hazards, marks great progress, says Diane VanDe Hei, executive director of the Washington-based Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies and WaterISAC, an online security resource for water utilities. Plenty of work remains, however, as the water industry continues moving toward resiliency.

Celebrating progress

Across the board, water storage and treatment facilities have been strengthened with perimeter controls, access protocols, inventory assurance and reinforced buildings. Before Sept. 11, “we didn't have hardened facilities,” says Billy Turner, president of Columbus Water Works in Columbus, Ga. “Now, you can't get in [the facilities] unless you have a [digital identification] card. And, we have sophisticated camera systems.”

In many areas, emergency response systems have been improved. For instance, Virginia Beach, Va., learned how vulnerable it was a few years ago after a hurricane wiped out power for a week, causing a number of sewer overflows in the streets. Since then, the city has equipped all of its 400 sewer pumps with emergency power and increased the reliability of the power sources, says Mayor Meyera Oberndorf.

Utilities also have formed networks to help each other respond to and recover from emergencies. The most popular agreements are Water/Wastewater Agency Response Networks (WARNs), developed by each state from a nationwide program. Following disasters, WARN members can contact other utilities for assistance with personnel, equipment, materials and other services.

Some larger utilities have questioned the value of joining a WARN, but many have found the networks beneficial regardless of a utility's size. “As a large utility, you find out that the people who need assistance are usually smaller than you, and you might question how they could reciprocate the assistance,” McDaniel says. “But WARNS have been refined, and the value of having them has become more apparent. There are ways that utilities of all sizes can help each other. For example, from the materials side, everyone has different types of motors, pumps, pipes and valves, but if you cast a wide net, you may be able to find someone who has the same equipment as you.”

In addition to joining California WARN, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power signed an agreement with its counterpart in San Francisco to provide similar assistance in the event of a catastrophe. “It's a customized agreement that may be even more valuable than WARNs because it includes how to handle payment, liability, reporting and other details,” McDaniel says. “And geographically, we're close enough to help each other quickly but far enough away that hopefully, the same disaster wouldn't affect both of us.”

Many water departments also have strengthened their ties to other agencies in their jurisdictions. “We've built stronger relationships with law enforcement, and they have hazardous materials labs that have the ability to test for things that we didn't know existed before,” McDaniel says.

Utility executives in Fort Collins, Colo., strive to maintain the relationships that developed after Sept. 11 with other city departments. “It takes a lot of work because they're all very busy as well,” says Kevin Gertig, acting water resources and treatment manager for Fort Collins Utilities. “They may overlook utilities when training, but try to involve yourself in that if it applies. For instance, they may be reviewing for a dam failure or doing pandemic planning, and you have to break out the security issues.”

Strides also have been made in coordinating federal activities with local utilities, VanDe Hei says. The federal government's National Response Plan has a sector-specific element for water utilities, and local agencies have formed the Water Sector Coordinating Council, which includes 16 members that meet quarterly, to respond to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on policy matters.

Eyeing ongoing threats

While it is effective to harden a physical facility, “once water leaves the facility and goes into the distribution system, that's where the real challenges lie,” Gertig says. That is because water distribution lines extend for miles — Virginia Beach, for instance, recently installed a 75-mile pipeline from Lake Gaston that can pump in 60 million gallons of water per day — and it is difficult to guard lines that run through the countryside.

Some utilities are developing distribution analysis techniques to monitor water in pipelines. In Fort Collins, a recently installed distributed water quality model gathers information about the water throughout the system. “It can give you the flows and tell you how long it's taking water to get from point A to point B,” Gertig says. “If you have something that goes astray, a sophisticated water quality model can help you determine the problem.”

Technology also is being developed to monitor contaminants in the water supply and deliver that information online in real-time. While electronic monitoring has been possible for more than a decade, the technology has progressed rapidly in the past five years, VanDe Hei says. The EPA's water research branch in Cincinnati also has been developing methods for continual water monitoring to detect dangerous chemicals or other contaminants. EPA plans to roll out its pilot program for other cities soon, and Greater Cincinnati Water Works (GCWW) will share its experiences and help describe the benefits for water utilities.

Time issues

In the end, maintaining water security requires time and vigilance. “Most systems have a real challenge finding staff time to implement and integrate various changes for security,” Gertig says. “Most utilities are really stretched to keep water distributed, and finding time on top of that is a challenge.”

Despite that, utilities have to plan for situations that may never arise. “We're spending millions of dollars trying to prevent something that's never happened,” says Tom Leahy, director of public utilities for Virginia Beach. “It's a challenge to not become complacent, to not miss that little clue that could be something big.”

Several industry associations offer training programs, and federal agencies — such as EPA, DHS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency — also offer classes on water security, many of which are online. Gertig's utility often brings in plant staff and others who are unable to travel to conferences to watch WaterISAC training programs during lunch. They also take training programs from the American Water Works Association, Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, the National Rural Water Association and others. “Every week we get an update on security issues from ISAC, and those are great for reviewing the trends,” he says. “We might have a roundtable discussion to talk about how ready we are for various threats.”

Utility managers can participate in projects to share information with counterparts across the country. ISAC's Water Information and Analysis Center offers databases for utilities to report activities in their regions and find out if others are experiencing similar issues. “If we find a fence cutting but don't see anything [else awry], we can report it online, and maybe two or three other utilities are experiencing the same thing,” says GCWW Director David Rager. “It's a great way to find out quickly about real threats and false alarms.”

Forecasting the future

While much progress has been made, ongoing threats ensure that the work is never finished. Currently, utilities are eyeing new chemical security legislation under development by the House Homeland Security Committee, which many say would duplicate existing federal regulations, increasing costs and staff time unnecessarily. “We have no problem working with DHS to come up with appropriate programs,” McDaniel says. “But we think utilities need to be able to make the decisions about the appropriate chemicals to treat water and meet public health standards.”

Also, new tools for measuring utilities' progress in security efforts are on the horizon. The Water Sector Coordinating Council has developed a questionnaire that WaterISAC will distribute to utilities to measure the progress of infrastructure security. EPA is developing a new set of protocols to improve water system security. After two years in development, some of the new EPA tools began the pilot phase in June 2007. After one year of data is collected, the agency will begin rolling out the tools to additional utilities.

The most security-focused utilities continue to revisit the vulnerability assessments they conducted soon after Sept. 11. “The difficult thing with security is that once you implement the plan, then you begin to take it for granted,” Turner says. “If you don't continue to talk about it, make it part of your checks, and do periodic tests, you begin to get lax.”

Nancy Mann Jackson is a Florence, Ala.-based freelance writer.

Group communicates water utility threats

WaterISAC is an Internet-based security network established by utilities to secure water systems and ensure operations in the face of all hazards. It is one of the information sharing and analysis centers (ISACs) that the federal government uses as a primary means to funnel information directly to critical infrastructure sectors. Other sectors — including electricity, transportation and financial services — also rely on ISACs for essential security communication functions.

WaterISAC works with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Defense, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other federal agencies. Funded in part by an EPA grant, WaterISAC's core function is the immediate communication of threat warnings 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

WaterISAC's basic service is free for all water and wastewater services. Subscribers to the service receive security alerts and cyber security notifications authorized for general release. Water systems that subscribe to WaterISAC's Pro service pay a fee based on their population and receive “highly sensitive” or “for official use only” information and threat warnings. Pro subscribers can access a secure Internet portal containing critical water system security information, including a database of contaminants and appropriate protocols.

WaterISAC also provides direct access to water security analysts who can aid utility personnel with critical information, procedures and protocols. The security experts analyze raw information and determine how a threat may specifically affect the water community, identify trends and suggest mitigation.

More information is available at www.WaterISAC.org.