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 Bioterrorism Act of 2002

In June 2002, President George W. Bush signed the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 (Bioterrorism Act) into law. The Bioterrorism Act required that certain community water systems conduct vulnerability assessments, certify to EPA that the vulnerability assessments were conducted, and submit a copy of the assessment to EPA. The act further required that certain community water systems prepare or revise emergency response plans and certify to EPA that an emergency response plan has been completed. The Bioterrorism Act took into account the different size water systems and established deadlines for compliance that ended on Dec. 31, 2004, for the smallest of water systems covered under the act.

EPA's Role in Homeland Security

The EPA took on a more expanded role in safeguarding America against terrorism after September 11th. To meet the perceived expanded role, the EPA Director Christie Todd Whitman ordered the preparation of a strategic plan for Homeland Security. This was a comprehensive plan but included a number of key issues relevant to the water sector. The EPA made several commitments in their report, namely:

"By the end of FY2003, all water utility managers will have access to basic information to understand potential water threats, and basic tools to identify security needs. By the end of FY2003, all large community drinking water utilities shall have identified key vulnerabilities and shall be prepared to respond to any emergency. By the end of 2004, all medium community drinking water utilities shall be similarly positioned. By 2005, unacceptable security risks at water utilities across the country will be significantly reduced through completion of appropriate vulnerability assessments; design of security enhancement plans; development of emergency response plans; and implementation of security enhancements."

The EPA further committed to:

  • Develop tools, training and technical assistance for utilities in conducting vulnerability assessments.
  • Conduct research to improve threat information and knowledge and enable community water systems to make timely and effective analytical and technological decisions to enhance security, detect contamination, and respond to incidents.
  • Establish an information sharing and analysis (Water ISAC) organization to offer expert analysis, information gathering, and the rapid distribution of reports and government alerts about threats to America's drinking water and wastewater utilities.
  • Work with states, tribes, and water utilities to implement water security practices in ongoing water utility operations so that security becomes integrated with day-to-day operations.
  • Foster coordination among various state and federal agencies to improve response to actual or potential emergencies.
  • Work with other critical infrastructure to understand interdependencies and reduce the impact of terrorist incidents.

The work outlined above is far from complete. The General Accounting Office (GAO) released a report on a study of the chemical and water sectors in March 2005. A complete copy of the report can be found at Officials representing eight of the 10 chemical facilities and eight community water systems GAO visited reported encountering obstacles in making security enhancements and maintaining a level of security consistent with their needs. Officials at six of the community water systems GAO visited reported economic constraints, such as balancing the need for rate increases to fund security enhancements with efforts to keep rates low. Four of the eight community water systems visited stated that instituting a cultural change that stresses the importance of security was another challenge they needed to address. An official at another system noted that the public in his locality did not perceive the water system to be at risk and, if it was, the public believed that little could be done to prevent a terrorist attack, making it difficult for the community water system to obtain budget increases to pay for security enhancements.