When you think about security threats to public works, drinking water is at the top of the list. Disruption of wastewater operations or solid waste disposal simply doesn't pose such an immediate and direct danger. And though damage to the transportation system could wreak havoc, there's something incredibly creepy and sinister about the thought of contaminated drinking water.
Recognizing the potential for catastrophe, the National Drinking Water Advisory Council (NDWAC—pronounced nid-wack) established the Water Security Working Group in fall 2003 to look at security threats to our nation's drinking water supplies. The WSWG's findings were presented at the American Water Works Association's June meeting by NDWAC member and WSWG co-chair Rebecca Head (also director of the Monroe County, Mich., Health Department) and Alan Roberson, director of security and regulatory affairs for AWWA.
Amidst a rare flurry of television cameras and microphones, they described the working group's 18 findings that start by identifying the 14 features of an “active and effective” security program, then call on government to establish incentives for utilities to implement such a program. The report concludes with a long list of ways to measure whether the security system is adequate.
This report has now gone to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for implementation. How aggressively EPA enforces the 14 features the WSWG established for an “active and effective” security program remains to be seen, but we can certainly expect that there will be significant political pressure to comply. Every person in the United States who is served by a public water supply—and the NDWAC says there are 160,000 public water systems in the U.S. serving 300 million people—demands that the water supply be 100% safe. Talk about pressure!
And yet, what is the real threat? During the press conference I asked Head whether there had ever been a viable, deliberate attempt to contaminate a U.S. water system. She, and the other experts in the room, had to concede that there had not been such an attack. Still, the potential exists, and even if an attack didn't contaminate the water supply, shutting down the system for any period of time could be catastrophic. Even an incident that undermined the public's confidence in the water supply could have huge negative impacts.
I encourage anyone with responsibility for a public water supply to get a copy of the NDWAC report (available on AWWA's Web site at www.awwa.org/advocacy/govtaff/govnew.cfm), study what it takes to have an active and effective security system, and begin to do what you can to increase security. Many of the ideas presented are, as Roberson noted, low or no-cost, especially when compared to the colossal risk.
Editor in Chief