After the airline hijack attacks
of Sept. 11, America’s drinking water utilities jolted into high alert. State
police blocked public access roads to dams and reservoirs across the country.
Normally such protection is reserved for times of severe drought, when the risk
of fire threatens such facilities and public safety. But the terrorism assaults
have made protecting water supplies a matter of national security.
“We have to consider whether chemical plants, dams and water supply systems can be turned into weapons through destruction or contamination,” says U.S. Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn.). Duncan chaired a hearing on the potential terrorism threats to the nation’s water infrastructure on Oct. 10. “Government agencies and the private sector must review the security of all of the critical infrastructure they operate and where appropriate take steps to increase that security.”
As of early November, Congress had requests in the billions of dollars for water security research efforts and improvements nationwide.
Scientists and political strategists agree such measures can reduce the vulnerability of the nation’s water supply. “Even though it is difficult to intentionally contaminate a water supply, it has happened in the past,” says hydrologist Glenn Patterson of the U.S. Geological Survey. “Water supplies were targeted as an act of war during the Civil War, in World War II and in Kosovo in 1998. It is infrequent and unlikely, but it is conceivable.” Just how nervous is Patterson about the threats to drinking water during the “War on Terrorism”? “I’m confident enough in our water systems to drink the water from the tap. But I’m cautious enough to think that increasing vigilance and improving security would be prudent and worthwhile,” he says.
Today, 168,000 public drinking water systems serve America its tap water. And despite the disparity in the quality of the water coming into the systems, be it groundwater or surface water, national standards dictate what is allowed out. Two years ago most managers listed oil and petroleum spills, agricultural runoff and bacteria from untreated sewage discharges as the most significant threats to drinking water. In 1998, President Clinton established a directive to protect critical infrastructures, including water systems, from intentional sabotage.
But in terms of bioterrorism attacks on water, the threat is limited. “With regard to contamination by biological agents, the nation’s water supply may seem to be a logical target for a terrorist attack,” testified Ronald Dick, director of the FBI’s National Infrastructure Protection Center, at the hearing. “In reality, targeting the water supply may prove difficult.”
In separate interviews, infectious disease experts and hydrologists agree that attempts to contaminate major surface water systems before they are treated would require an inordinate amount of toxins to combat the dilution factor. “I don’t worry about someone having a biological agent and pouring it into a reservoir before the water is treated,” says David Franz, Vice President of the Chemical and Biological Defense Division of Southern Research Institute in Frederick, Md.
Ronald Atlas, president-elect of the American Society for Microbiology, expresses a similar opinion. “Take cyanide for instance. You would need an awful lot for it not to be diluted out. And, as for bacteria, we assume there is an influx of pathogens coming in already,” he says. “We treat for that by adding chlorine, filtering the water and testing for bacteria and chemicals.”
Still, “you wouldn’t want to see a truck load of pesticides or nerve agents fall off the American Legion Bridge into the Potomac River. That would be dangerous,” Patterson says. “But, even then, the police would know about it before the contaminant reached Washington, D.C., and could shut off the water supply.”
After Sept. 11, guards blocked public access to many reservoirs, dams and bridges. The Quabbin Reservoir in Belchertown, Mass., has 181 miles of shoreline and holds 412 billion gallons of water. Indeed, its size was a determining factor for regulating public access, by simply making it easier to patrol during the heightened alerts. “The Quabbin is so large that any attempts to damage its integrity would be highly unlikely to succeed,” says David Gilmartin, spokesman for the Massachusetts Water Resources Agency. “Water takes years to circulate from one side to the other.”
In planning emergency response guidelines, each system must assess its own vulnerability to attack, based on reservoir size, location, access and other security measures. As back up, utilities often have multiple water supplies, such as groundwater. Physical attack on infrastructure may be easier in terms of access to weapons than biological or chemical attempts to sabotage a system. Fortunately the risk behind terrorism threats can be minimized, says Mike Parker, spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Corps operates 230 locks and dams, 383 major lakes and reservoirs, and one drinking water treatment plant, which supplies water to Washington, D.C. Since Sept. 11, temporary protection measures include “restricted public access, increased standoff distances to critical structures, increased patrol activities, contracted additional guard support, increased coordination with local law enforcement and establishment of early warning telephone procedures,” Parker says.
Engineers stressed the importance of monitoring for sabotage attempts throughout the water treatment process and especially where the water supply may be more vulnerable, such as after treatment and at distribution facilities. Jeffrey Danneels of Sandia National Laboratories is working with the Environmental Protection Agency and the American Water Works Association Research Foundation to train water utilities on how to identify their vulnerabilities, reduce their risk of attack and mitigate consequences. Sandia has also invested over $11 million in research efforts with the Department of Energy’s Chemical/Biological Non-proliferation Program to design and prototype handheld chemistry laboratories to identify biowarfare agents.
The cost of security can be high. “A low security level might mean hiring a security guard and installing some detection features around critical assets, and that won’t cost a lot,” Danneels says. “But to stop a fairly organized group from committing a terrorist act could be extremely expensive.”
John Sullivan, president of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, which provides drinking water to 160 million people across the country, asked Congress during the Oct. 10 hearing for $5 billion to help rehabilitate water and waste-water treatment infrastructure. He requested $100 million to help in assessing physical vulnerability for the nation’s largest water supply systems and $55 million for enhancing and developing emergency response plans.
On Oct. 30, Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) and Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) introduced companion bills in the Senate and House respectively, a bill to authorize $12 million per year for the next six years to the EPA. With that money the agency would grant research and development projects on efforts to prevent, detect or respond to physical and cyber threats to water supply and wastewater treatment systems.
In Utah, security is a matter
of Olympic concerns. Estimated costs of preparation, monitoring and vulnerability
tests for Salt Lake Valley alone stretch easily into the millions. Preparations
aimed specifically at protecting drinking water systems during the Olympics
have cost millions, says Kim Dyches, emergency response coordinator for the
Utah Division of Drinking Water. Some of the costs include toximeters with live
organisms to monitor the toxicity of the water before it is treated — $43,000
each. Helicopter surveillance costs $600 a trip. “Some of the other costs are
from hiring security guards, and outside firms to do vulnerability assessments,
training, increased surveillance, camera coverage, employee wages, increased
sampling and monitoring and the list goes on,” Dyches says. But those costs
were already planned before the events on Sept. 11. “We realized Utah could
be a target right from the time the Olympics were announced in 1996.”
Dyches adds that with 70,000 to 100,000 additional people at the Olympics the city will need an additional 5.5 million gallons of water per day. “The water demand during that time of year is low and a lot of visitors will be drinking bottled water. So we don’t anticipate any problems with delivering the additional increase during that time.”
Bart Forsyth, assistant general manager of water supply/water quality for Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District in Utah, says they originally budgeted $200,000 for security during the Olympics, but “as a result of the events on Sept. 11, we’ve increased our security budget substantially. It’s now close to half a million.” Jordan Valley supplies about 70 million gallons of drinking water to more than 600,000 people in Salt Lake County. “We’ve had to reprioritize our water system improvement projects, deferring lower priority projects in order to pay for security improvements this year, “ Forsyth says. Some of the security measures they have added include cameras, lighting, water quality detection systems, fencing and replacement of concrete barriers. “When we first found out about the Olympics, obviously we were concerned about security. The events on Sept. 11 raised the need for security much higher than any of us had ever dreamed, far more than we had envisioned or anticipated early on. We live in a new world, and I don’t expect it will ever change back. Everything we do now for the Olympics and the money we are spending on security improvements will remain in place after the Olympics are over.”