Protecting Our Water Systems in the Age of Terror

From terrorism to 'everyday' incidents, a look at what it will take to secure our water supplies


The protection effort for water is complex with a number of different federal agencies and private sector organizations involved such as the EPA, Department of Homeland Security, FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Critical Infrastructure Assurance Office, American Water Works Association, and Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies. This article will provide background on what efforts the government and water sector has taken to protect America's drinking water. Subsequent articles in this series will highlight readily available resources, key strategies that can be employed to improve security and the challenges to protecting America's Water supply.

Current Threats to Water and Water Facilities

There is growing concern that chemical, biological and radiological weapons may be used against the U.S. civilian population with water as one possible vehicle of transmission for these weaponized agents. Damage to or destruction of the nation's water supply and water quality infrastructure by terrorist attack could disrupt the delivery of vital human services in this country, threatening public health and the environment, or possibly causing loss of life. A loss of flow and pressure would also cause problems for customers and would hinder firefighting efforts. Cyber attacks on computer operations can affect an entire infrastructure network, and hacking in water utility systems could result in theft or corruption of information or denial and disruption of service.

In his 2002 State of the Union Address, President Bush noted that captured Al Qaeda documents included detailed maps of several U.S. municipal public drinking water systems. Apprehension regarding a terrorist assault on drinking water systems has also been reinforced by news reports and arrests of suspects charged with threatening to contaminate municipal water supplies in the U.S. No matter how minor the contamination event or short-term the disruption to the delivery of safe drinking water, the psychological, medical and potential public health impact on the U.S. population could be significant.

The threat from terrorism continues to resurface from time to time with the most recent statement from Osama bin Laden released in January 2006 where he made a general warning that security measures would not be able to prevent attacks. As translated and reported by NBC, bin Laden charged that "the proof of that is the explosions you have seen in the capitals of European nations," he said "The delay in similar operations happening in America has not been because of failure to break through your security measures. The operations are under preparation and you will see them in your homes the minute they are through [with preparations], with God's permission."

Water systems as with any other organization must protect themselves from a myriad of security threats both external and internal. In my line of business, we have conducted a number of threat assessments for water systems around the U.S. And while terrorism always grabs the headlines from more commonplace crimes, we have found that security incidents and resulting crimes typically stem from disgruntled insiders and common criminals. These "everyday" incidents occur with a much higher frequency than terrorist plots, even when considered on an international scale. An effective security program therefore must be based on a comprehensive understanding of the threats and resulting risk of security attacks against the water systems personnel, assets or information.

Government Response to Perceived Threats

President Clinton's 1998 Presidential Decision Directive 63 identified eight critical infrastructure systems requiring a coordinated national effort to achieve the capability to protect the nation's critical infrastructure from intentional acts that would diminish them. Water was included in the list of eight. Protection efforts focused primarily on the large community water supply systems that serve more than 100,000 persons.

In 1974, the Safe Drinking Water Act identified the EPA as the lead federal agency for liaison with the water supply sector, and the EPA has continued to operate in this leadership role for water security. In partnership with the American Metropolitan Water Association and American Water Works Association, the EPA in the year 2000 began to work on measures to security the water sector from terrorist acts. Interest in attacks against water systems increased since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The year 2002 saw the release of the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 in June. In September of that same year, the EPA published a Strategic Plan for Homeland Security. This plan included key programs to maintain the security of America's water, many of which are still unfolding even today.