Protecting a Public Water Supply System

Terror threats shake security to the very core of basic supplies

The people of the United States maintained confidence in the safety and security of the public drinking water system even as the country endured World War II, the Korean conflict and the Cold War years. That changed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Their confidence shaken, the people had concerns. Was the public water supply system sufficiently prepared for the threats posed in today’s world?

A Plan of Action
Established after 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security had the same concerns and quickly made it a priority to mitigate the risk of deliberate contamination to the nation’s drinking water supply system.

Roughly 84 percent of the U.S. population receives its drinking water from nearly 165,000 public drinking water systems. According to government statistics, there also are at least 16,000 publicly owned wastewater treatment systems in the United States. It is imperative that there are processes in place to ensure the safety of the drinking and wastewater infrastructure.

Under the Bioterrorism Act of 2002, DHS gave the EPA full responsibility for developing a comprehensive plan to protect and reduce risks to the water sector, which includes community drinking water and wastewater utilities. Through collaboration with public and private water utilities, state governments and national water sector associations, the EPA established vulnerability assessment guidelines to help water utilities evaluate their susceptibility to vandalism and sabotage.

The Collier County Story
The Collier County Water Department (CCWD) provides drinking water to more than 160,000 permanent and approximately 200,000 seasonal customers residing in the unincorporated areas of the county outside the city of Naples, Fla. The department maintains the entire water system, from pumping the water out of the ground to delivering it to the home.

The water supply system covers roughly 240 square miles and includes two hybrid water treatment plants, three water storage re-pumping facilities, three well fields, and one aquifer storage and recovery well.

The department’s 103 wells are spread out over a large geographic area, so it also operates two raw-water booster re-pump stations.

When the department conducted its EPA vulnerability assessment in 2002, it found that the public water supply system needed security enhancements in order to meet DHS’s critical infrastructure guidelines.

“Collier County needed to perform at a higher level of security,” said James Price, technical support professional for the Collier County Water Department. “We were tasked with tightly controlling and tracking access to our critical assets in order to protect the public water supply.”

An Effective Solution
After assessing the most immediate risks, CCWD’s management team turned its attention to finding the most effective way to control access to the well fields and other remote sites. While researching the options, the team determined that the CyberLock system of electronic lock cylinders, electronic padlocks and programmable keys met the requirements.

The department implemented the CyberLock system in 2004. The system has continued to grow as new wells come on line and facilities expand. To date, more than 600 electronic locks have been installed.

Five types of electronic lock cylinders are used in the lock hardware on administrative office doors, at re-pump stations and in the deadbolts on well house doors. There also are electronic padlocks on facility gates and underground sample stations.

“If a manager requests a number of electronic locks in a particular area, we can have them installed within a couple of days,” Price said. “For example, our wastewater department is preparing to install CyberLocks on facility gates, supply rooms, and one of their more isolated buildings.”

CCWD uses the electronic lock system’s software -- which includes an e-mail warning system and on-demand audit reports -- and runs the program on laptops.The audit reporting ensures that employees are doing their jobs, water samples are being pulled at the right times and at the correct locations, and scheduled security checks are being made throughout the well fields.

“The system’s auditing capabilities is of great importance to us,” Price said. “The electronic locks and keys audit lock openings, including exceptions such as unauthorized attempts to enter. The system sends us e-mail notifications of denied access, employee access to the facility after hours, and specific door openings at the water treatment plant. It also keeps us informed when someone is accessing a particular area of our facility.”

Contractor Access
Almost every water department team member and contractor carries an electronic key programmed to access only specific locks that pertain to that person’s job.

“We have contractors that cut the grass around our water treatment plants and wells,” Price said. “We issue an electronic key to each contractor so they can access the main gate. We let them know that any lock they open is being audited so we can confirm their activity while at a Collier County Water Department location. We explain the consequences if they try to access a lock that they are not authorized to open.”

The department uses the electronic barbell padlocks on its sample stations. Physical access to the stations is awkward, and there is only a small area to work in. The barbell padlock is ergonomically designed for this type of application. The underground stations are extremely wet, and the barbell is water resistant.

Laboratory employees collect samples from various areas of the water distribution system on a daily basis, and they must take a mandatory route for collecting the samples.

“The audit report from the electronic padlocks and each lab employee’s key should confirm that the employee is checking each sample at the location they indicate in their log,” Price said.

Meeting the Regulations
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is CCWD’s primary regulatory agency.

“They ensure we meet Homeland Security measures that have been put in place,” Price said. “We have to demonstrate that we are performing at certain levels of security to keep our risks as low as possible. CyberLock provides a system of checks and balances to document that we are staying in compliance and can respond effectively to any decrease in water quality from malevolent actions.

“The electronic lock system not only elevates our level of security, but it allows us to be proactive by getting out in front of potential problems. We can immediately take corrective action should a discrepancy appear in the audit reports,” Price said.

CCWD also audits employees responsible for carrying out security inspections at re-pump stations and in the well fields.

“Our re-pump stations are Cyber- Locked,” Price said. “A re-pump station can have as many as 10 electronic locks on it. When the employee performs a security check, they use their electronic key to open the locks on all the doors and panels. The audit trail that is downloaded from their key should confirm that they have checked everything at that re-pump station and it’s secure.

“Management can run audit reports to make sure employees are inspecting doors on well houses and checking in-ground wells that are in vaults. The vaults can have as many as four electronic locks on them.”

In addition to the two water treatment plants, CCWD maintains an operations center, comprising two buildings that house operations, offices of well field and distribution employees, and equipment.

“We have a combination of CyberLock access and card access in the operations center and the two systems work well together,” Price said. “In the well field section, key people may need to access an office or the supply room at night or during the weekend. On those particular doors, we have installed CyberLocks. We have the ability to grant or take away employee access to these areas, as needed.”

Bolstering the Perimeter
Along with the CyberLock system, CCWD has strengthened its perimeter security system at the two water treatment plants by installing additional CCTV cameras.

“We have added CCTV cameras at our re-pump stations, well fields and other remote sites,” Price said. “Currently, the majority of our physical assets are fenced in, and we will soon have all of our facilities and remote sites secured.”

Assessing risks and developing ways to manage and reduce those risks are ongoing. As EPA standards evolve and new security threats emerge, CCWD is in a strong position to respond quickly and decisively to protect the public’s water supply.

This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of Security Today.

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