Protecting Our Water Supply

Protecting Our Water Supply

Disruptions could shut down businesses, harm economy

Maintaining the security of our nation’s water supplies is serious business. Attacks from a lone vandal to a team of foreign terrorists could, within hours, result in widespread illness or economic disruption.

According to the EPA, there are about 155,000 public water systems providing water for human consumption in the United States. These range in size from privately owned systems, serving dozens of people on a seasonal basis, to huge metropolitan utilities supplying water to millions every day.

As an example, the nation’s largest municipal utility, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, serves its customers by annually pumping more than 2 billion gallons of water through a pipeline network of more than 7,000 miles.


Most government and other experts say with the so-called “dilution solution” it would take massive amounts of a chemical or biological contaminant to threaten consumers of large water systems. Needed quantities of contaminants would be difficult to obtain and even more difficult to introduce into a system without being detected. Yet a few studies by some private and public organizations show readily available pumps and other devices could inject deadly quantities of toxic compounds into our drinking water supplies.

The physical destruction of water system components— disrupting an area’s water supply—is a more likely event than an attempt at contamination. Disruptions could shut down businesses, leave residents without water and hinder firefighting efforts.

So what can the security industry do to help protect water system customers? Phil Lake, president of Austin, Texas-based Knight Security, has worked on major metropolitan water utilities and shared some ideas.

“Most utilities suffer from the same problem facing other organizations – a limited budget for security,” Lake said. “That means we have to carefully plan in order to get the most from the electronic security solutions being deployed.”

Lake said a water utility security plan usually begins the same as one for other facilities—protect the perimeter and work in using layers of security.

“The goal is to stop potential intruders before they get on the property,” he said. “And in the case of a mid-to-large water utility there may be 50 or more separate facilities to protect—water treatment, chemical storage, testing labs, service yards, reservoirs, pump stations, parking lots/garages and office buildings.”


Lake said Knight Security typically starts with video intercoms at each vehicular or pedestrian gate. Each unit is connected to the utility’s security command center. Without putting himself at risk, a guard can have a two-way conversation and clearly see the visitor before remotely opening a gate to allow access.

Video intercoms are used at remote buildings which are often unmanned. Intercoms remove the need to have guards onsite or travel to the facility to accommodate visitors. A mobile app helps make guards more efficient while on patrol, allowing them to control the intercom units using smartphones or tablets to communicate with visitors and unlock doors.

Intercoms are also very useful as part of emergency towers placed in parking garages and other remote areas. The stations’ bright blue lights attract distressed visitors and employees who can directly contact security guards with the push of a button.

A water utility will likely have hundreds—maybe thousands—of employees requiring access to one or multiple facilities. That’s where an access control system becomes important. The system can be programmed to allow employees access to only those entries required to complete their jobs. Also, temporary access can be granted when an employee is filling in for a colleague on vacation or sick leave. With both card readers and video intercoms, the utility has an audit trail to see who entered which facilities as well as the date and time. Lake said a number of utility facilities are still protected by key locks. Keys can be easily lost, stolen or copied, and keys provide no audit trails.

“It’s still not unusual for remote sites to be left unlocked throughout the day for the convenience of employees,” he said. “This can be very dangerous if the building stores dangerous chemicals or other potentially harmful or valuable items.”

Lake strongly urged utilities to keep doors locked at all times, with the exception of public entries which must remain open during regular business hours. Employees should use their access cards to enter appropriate gates and/or doors.


Safety and liability are two other issues facing water utilities. Reservoirs, pumping stations and other remote areas can attract children looking for places to play. Fencing and gates (with electronic locks) are a good way to deter access. Again, gate-mounted video intercoms or card readers provide access for those requiring it. Some utilities are still using padlocks to secure gates. Lake said these can often be defeated.

Sensors strategically placed on fences will alarm the command center if anyone tries to climb the fence. Motion detectors can create virtual barriers around open areas. Intrusion systems are ideal for protecting buildings.

High-resolution video surveillance cameras provide live and recorded video of remote entry points, building perimeters and internal offices. For outdoor use, such as outbuildings, reservoirs and perimeters, Lake recommends the use of thermal cameras to capture the movement of people at night. Also, wireless IP-based cameras can eliminate the need for expensive cable runs to remote areas.

Cameras are useful to monitor gauges and instruments as part of a utility’s Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) management system. SCADA systems are installed at critical operational sites allowing utility personnel to monitor water pressure, equipment temperatures and other factors to detect potential problems before they become dangerous. Mobile apps allow guards to monitor live and recorded video—including views of SCADA instruments— as they move about the grounds.

Monitoring alarms and controlling many disparate security systems can become overwhelming for any security team. Lake said he always recommends the installation of a security management system capable of providing an integrated single-platform view of data from cameras, intercoms, access control and intrusion panels. Some systems are also capable of controlling building systems such as lighting and HVAC.


Also, a wall of monitors displaying video from all cameras can be overwhelming for a single or group of guards. Video analytics can alert guards to any number of user-defined events.

based security plan developed by Knight Security is a system health monitoring program. Technology allows the integrator to identify system issues—often before a system fails—and prevent major problems such as: • Hard dive and CPU failures • UPS and battery failures • IP switch malfunctions • Power supply loss • Network communications loss • Camera outages • Access control downtime

“We don’t want to wait for a utility to experience a problem before we’re called,” he said. “We initiate about half of the service activity on the systems we monitor. That’s why we continue to invest heavily in technology to improve our system health monitoring capabilities. The systems we install need to work as intended. In securing our water supplies, there are no second chances.”

In addition to security, a fully functioning system can increase employee productivity and safety compliance, Lake said.

Cyber security is also a concern for any utility. Lake said his team leaves the cyber protection of internal systems to the utility’s own IT department. However, it is his group’s responsibility to safeguard cameras, intercoms, access systems and other security equipment from hackers.

That, Lake said, involves making sure factory-default passwords have been changed and any system firewalls are working and active. Knight Security also advocates changing passwords on a regular, and frequent, basis.


A 2016 report from Verizon Enterprise Solutions reported a close call highlighting the need for utilities to maintain their computer operating systems. A foreign group breached a U.K.-based water utility’s outdated system, taking control of the SCADA platform and altering the amount of chemicals used to treat drinking water. Fortunately, utility officials were able to quickly identify and reverse the chemical flow, minimizing any serious impact on customers.

Another valuable suggestion is training not only the security staff, but all employees to be on the lookout for suspicious people and activities. The public can also be asked through their utility bills to provide information about any unusual activity around neighborhood water lines.

Some utilities also choose to have their alarms register with the local law enforcement and fire departments in order to reduce response times to potentially dangerous situations. Also, many water utilities regularly invite first responders to visit the facilities to be aware of vulnerable points and where they are located.

Operators of public and private water utilities have no choice but to do their best to protect the public from attacks on a critically vital service. In order to stretch limited budgets, it’s wise to conduct regular security assessments. These identify security strengths and weaknesses and help decision makers spend their money on those systems providing the highest degree of protection and the best return on investment. Security assessments are best conducted by an experienced outside expert.

As long as we have state-sponsored terrorists and even local vandals, our water supplies will offer a tempting target. Just because attacks on water utilities have been rare, we must continue to protect our water supplies to the best of our abilities.

This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of Security Today.


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