Rural Water Group Looks for Boost in Security Funding

An organization representing rural water utilities may ask Congress to fund a fiscal year 2006 water security proposal the group is preparing to head off potential shortfalls in EPA's budget that would limit small water systems' ability to implement security measures, sources familiar with the effort say.

The National Rural Water Association (NRWA) has not determined how much such an effort would cost, but a source with the group says, "It wouldn't be a huge amount of money." NRWA may ask congressional appropriators to approve a rider to one of the FY06 funding bills, or request funding in the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) budget, since it appears unlikely that EPA will receive funds in FY06 for additional security measures, the source says.

The funding request would help small communities because existing funding mechanisms and security partnerships have not adequately addressed these concerns, the NRWA source says.

Specifically, NRWA will request funding for initiatives including a new water security communication network between small communities and DHS; a plan to conduct peer reviews of community security plans; models to measure progress at the local level; and ways to encourage communities to fix security vulnerabilities.

EPA released a revised homeland security strategy Nov. 17 that reflects dwindling funds, as well as the agency's limited role since DHS' creation. The revised strategy came after the Bush administration rejected an EPA request for up to $161 million in supplemental homeland security funds for FY06, raising concerns that some EPA program offices may have to fund their homeland security efforts from their environmental budgets (Inside EPA, Nov. 19, p1).

EPA has provided some money for both small and large communities over the past few years to help them complete vulnerability assessments required by the 2002 Bioterrorism Act, as well as funding for anthrax response and to hire on-scene coordinators to help out in emergencies.

But now that the vulnerability assessments and other security initiatives are complete, the agency's security funding is expected to decline, according to briefing papers prepared earlier this year for EPA Deputy Administrator Stephen Johnson. The papers projected that EPA would receive $60 million through the agency's budget in homeland security funding in FY06, half the $120 million that the agency received for security in FY04.

The NRWA source says EPA's current funding shortfall has prompted the group to search for additional sources of money prior to FY06 budget discussions. "The point of documenting this now is to show what's going on in small communities before budget time," the source says.

The primary component of NRWA's security plan would be a new water security network between small communities and DHS that would fill what NRWA says is a communication gap between rural water systems and the federal government. NRWA sent a letter Nov. 19 to DHS's Information Analysis & Infrastructure Protection branch, asking whether the Department of Homeland Security "would like to partner in our objective of developing a water security communication infrastructure with every small water and wastewater supply in the country." Relevant documents are available on InsideEPA.com.

NRWA's proposed security network would not identify new security threats or how to address them, but instead would work with DHS to ensure that the threat information the department has already developed would reach rural water utilities in a timely manner, the NRWA source says.

The group's proposal suggests linking all existing communications databases -- such as state rural water associations' membership lists, rural water associations' field work reporting data and EPA and Agriculture Department databases -- to ensure DHS is able to reach rural utilities in cases where security information must be communicated.

NRWA says in its proposal that a comprehensive database is needed because of numerous instances where EPA or DHS have been unable to communicate such information to small utilities, such as distribution of EPA's "threat assessment" document several years ago. NRWA says the document, which gives utilities general information on how to protect their facilities against terrorist threats, never reached many small utilities in EPA's initial attempt because "many of EPA's addresses were incorrect, the letters never made it to the correct local officials upon delivery, many systems could not get the fax to go through" and several other complications.

NRWA also suggests that its communication system network would rely on state rural water associations to deliver security information, rather than having DHS relay the information; and allow rural utilities to base their security plans on measures that improve security on a site-specific basis rather than conforming to a national set of security guidelines.

In addition to proposing the communications network, NRWA plans to send additional letters to DHS outlining the group's suggestions for how the department should peer review communities' security plans and encourage communities to take corrective action on vulnerabilities identified in those plans.

A DHS spokesman says the department had not yet received NRWA's letter, and DHS was not familiar with the proposal.

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