AWWA stress security strategy

In an exclusive to World Water, Kathryn L McCain, the American Water Works Association's first female president, explains why US water utilities are investing heavily in security.


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Security is not a new issue for drinking water professionals, but the tragedies of 9-11 in 2002 dramatically sharpened the North American water community’s focus on protecting critical water infrastructure and supplies.

Most experts consider the likelihood of a successful terrorist attack on the North American water supply to be small. However, terrorism is about instilling fear, and an attack on a water system would dramatically affect confidence in public health, fire control, sanitation and other services we take for granted. Since we cannot know for certain if our water systems are a serious terrorist target, we must think and act as if they are.

If drinking water utilities once applied security like a protective shield, it now has to be in our blood. Security considerations must be integrated into everything we do, flowing naturally from design to management to operations. While the water industry’s immediate response to 9-11 was to evaluate vulnerabilities and address them with whatever resources were available, the long-term effect is that security is becoming a key thread in the fabric of our culture, inseparable from our strategic planning and daily decision-making.

Water professionals are addressing security in many ways, but our collective efforts are reflected by progress in four major areas:

· enhanced physical security

· the pursuit of better contaminant monitoring

· increased coordination and
information sharing among
water professionals and other
stakeholders

· improved emergency response planning.

Guidance for Utilities

Maybe the best illustration of how these approaches are coming together within the United States is in the interim voluntary guidance introduced in December. Three organizations, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), American Water Works Association (AWWA) and the Water Environment Federation (WEF), produced the interim voluntary guidance documents with funding from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The guidance encompasses the ideas and experiences of some of the very best minds in the water community.

These voluntary guidelines will help utilities think about security considerations proactively. It is no longer good enough to think only about how to protect a facility after it is constructed, we need to ask the right questions up-front to build facilities and distribution systems that will be secure now and in the future. These guidelines help utilities do just that.

The three guidance documents (available free to utilities from the organisations’ websites) complement one another. One addresses physical security, cyber security and emergency response planning at drinking water utilities; a second does the same for wastewater facilities; and the third focuses on the design of online monitoring systems to detect the presence of contaminants that could be introduced by terrorists.

The guidelines are extensive, more than 1000 pages in total, but they contain three major accomplishments:

· They provide for the first time a comprehensive storehouse of
information for utilities seeking
the most effective approach to
security for their facilities and
infrastructure. This is an impor-
tant point. Facilities vary in size
and function. Threat levels vary.
Budgets vary. The guidance pro-
vides a menu of approaches from
which utilities can choose to
meet their unique needs.

· They provide case studies from
unidentified utilities that help
managers and planners compare
their own situations with others
of similar size and means in
order to gain helpful insight.

· They provide water industry
consultants and manufacturers
with a better window onto the
needs of utilities. This can help
them apply their skills and
resources toward the develop-
ment of products and knowledge
that will meet real needs.

Physical security

Most water utilities have a keen sense of where their own security improvements are needed. The 2002 Bioterrorism Act required all U.S. drinking water utilities serving 3300 people or more to complete vulnerability assessments and certify that they have emergency response plans in place.

Although there was not a requirement for wastewater utilities, many engaged in a similar process on a voluntary basis. With the completion of the interim voluntary guidance, utilities now also have an excellent tool to help them address the issues they identified.

The costs of addressing physical security are substantial. AWWA estimates water utilities have already spent approximately $2 billion in upgrading physical security through better intrusion detection equipment, fencing and gates, locks, cameras, lighting and other measures. One utility reported investing upward of $120 million in a single year including $13 million on intrusion detection, $14 million on fencing and gates, $30 million on cyber security, $22 million on lighting, $8 million on closed-circuit television, and $4 million to clear vegetation that could obscure suspicious activity.

Security costs can obviously add up quickly. With almost no federal funding available to address these issues, US utilities are prioritizing their actions to reduce their most serious vulnerabilities. Utilities are working very hard to make changes that make most terror plots more difficult to execute.

Detecting contamination

While deterring physical attacks may depend largely on visible defenses like perimeter fencing, detecting unwanted substances is a more complicated matter. Water community researchers, engineers and manufacturers are working collaboratively with intelligence experts and health officials to determine how to monitor for a wide range of biological agents and radioactive materials. Technology is advancing, and manufacturers are working with water suppliers to bring that technology to the marketplace.

Information sharing and coordination

One of the most positive developments in the past two years is the increased level of information sharing on security issues throughout the water community. For example, in April 2005, AWWA will host its third annual Water Security Congress, an event that brings together hundreds of water utility professionals, emergency responders, EPA officials, FBI agents and others to compare information, ideas and technology.

This year’s event will be in Oklahoma City, just days prior to the 10th anniversary of the domestic terror attack on the city’s federal building. It should serve as a reminder to all of us that terrorism does not always come from outside a country’s borders.

Securing water supplies will again be a major theme at AWWA’s Annual Conference and Exposition (ACE) in San Francisco in June 2005, and security seminars and materials are well represented in AWWA’s regular offerings. Not everyone can attend face-to-face training so AWWA is also offering a series of webcasts and online training opportunities.

Water suppliers and intelligence entities are also sharing information online that may someday prevent a terror attack on a water system. In December 2002, with funding from EPA, the secure Water Information Sharing and Analysis Center (WaterISAC) was launched. Utilities can access it through a secure portal to get alerts on potential threats, a database on chemical, biological and radiological threats, cyber security information and other useful materials.

Emergency response planning

Of course, no amount of information sharing ensures we will never face an attack on our water supplies. That means that emergency response planning and coordination is every bit as important as the work accomplished to deter and detect terror attacks.

The past two years have seen a number of forums to connect the water community with emergency personnel critical to an effective response in the event of a terror attack on a water supply. For example, AWWA hosted two First Responders seminars in Denver and Atlanta, at which utility managers met with fire officials, health experts, police officers, intelligence agents and others.

In addition, AWWA and individual water utilities have conducted tabletop exercises to practice cohesive responses to intentional contamination incidents. These exercises typically include utility managers, public health officials, emergency responders and others. The proper timing and channels for public communications timing is an important element within the drills.

Looking forward

It’s difficult to suggest anything positive could emerge from the events of 9-11. However, we can say with confidence that a catastrophic attack on our water supply would be more difficult now than before that fateful day.

In the past three years, the water community has moved far beyond a simple ‘watchdog’ approach to water security. With continued vigilance and strategically planned investments and activities, the wisdom of our actions will be affirmed by the incident that never happens.

© Faversham House Ltd 2022 edie news articles may be copied or forwarded for individual use only. No other reproduction or distribution is permitted without prior written consent.

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