Protecting the U.S. water supply against terrorism
- By John Gaydos
- Jan 01, 2009
The U.S. water supply is generally considered
among the best and safest in the
world. However, many water and security
experts agree that it offers an attractive
target for terrorists, and that threats could
come from either contamination or from disruption of
the distribution system.
In his 2005 resignation speech, former Health and
Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson warned
that an attack on the nation’s food and water supply would
be “easy to do.” One reason is that there are so many targets.
The nation’s 50,000 community and 200,000 public
and private water systems operate hundreds of treatment
centers, thousands of miles of pipeline and countless
remote pump stations—which are often many miles away
from the nearest law enforcement station.
In 1993, a naturally occurring parasite made its way
into the Milwaukee drinking water system, resulting in
about 100 deaths and 400,000 gastrointestinal illnesses. If
a water-borne protozoan could infect 400,000 people in
one city, how many more lives could be lost through the
deliberate introduction of a potent chemical or biological
agent into the water supply of a major metropolitan area?
What the Experts Say
Many experts say such an event is unlikely, because most
reservoirs contain thousands of gallons of water, which
would require a large amount of a contaminant to be
effective. Standard filtration and disinfection of the
water further mitigates any contamination. Yet even a
small amount of contaminant released after the final
treatment process could cause widespread panic and distrust
of the public water system, locally and nationwide.
Treatment facilities are required by law to monitor
water on a regular basis for biological and chemical contaminants.
However, the facilities are unable to test for
all known toxins, and there are no widely available realtime
tests for biological pathogens and only limited
capabilities for potential chemical contaminants.
However, that may soon change. Using an
Environmental Protection Agency grant, the city of
Tucson, Ariz., is testing a laser system designed to detect
microbes in water within seconds and identify them in
minutes. Currently, water samples can take days or
weeks to check in a laboratory. The test of the new system
is expected to extend into 2010.
Where the water supply may be most vulnerable is in
the transmission and delivery stages. Many different
state and local agencies and private companies control
the nation’s highly distributed design, which allows for
needed flexibility when one part of the system fails or
requires maintenance. Yet, all of those dams, reservoirs,
lakes, treatment and filtration systems, pipes, pumps and
valves offer numerous targets for terrorists.
A major disruption of this system could keep water
from reaching U.S. cities. The impacts could be severe—
restaurants could close; manufacturing processes could
be halted; there could be frenzied rushes on retailers
selling bottled water; fire departments could be unable
to extinguish fires. The economic toll of such an attack
would be difficult to calculate.
In the months following Sept. 11, 2001, Congress passed
the Public Health, Security and Bioterrorism
Preparedness Act of 2002. The act required all water
utilities serving more than 3,000 customers to assess
their vulnerability to terrorist attacks and natural disasters,
complete an emergency response plan and submit
the information to the EPA, the federal agency for water
With their assessments completed, many water officials
are increasing their security measures. For example,
the Birmingham Water Works, Alabama’s largest
water utility, has put the safety of its customers at the
forefront. After its EPA assessment, the company went
to work with ADT Security Services to incorporate network-
based video and access control into an integrated
system to help protect the district’s water supply.
Founded in 1951, the utility serves more than
600,000 customers and maintains more than 3,900 miles
of transmission lines in Jefferson, Shelby, Blount, St.
Clair and Walker counties.
More than 300 cameras monitor the exterior and interior
of the company’s 18 locations, and about 600 access
control cards have been issued for employees, vendors,
contractors and consultants.
The video is transmitted via the utility’s wide area network to a security command center that is staffed
around the clock. Security personnel can monitor live
streaming video from nearby and remote facilities on a
video wall, similar to the high-end, large video screens
used by NASA.
The cameras monitor Water Work’s main center,
intake and pumping stations, filter plants and treatment
centers. When a person or object comes
into contact with one of the electronic
fences surrounding district property, PTZ
cameras from opposing angles are activated
to send real-time video to the command
center. The cameras also send video
footage from before and after the event to
allow district security personnel to assess
the situation and determine what triggered
The district also uses video to monitor
potential problems with its supervisory
control and data acquisition management
system that provides reports on the function
and performance of critical systems.
If the computerized SCADA system
reports problems with water levels or
pressure, the cameras are automatically
activated to provide live video of water
processing valves, gauges and other
Network-based audio is another part of
the system. Visitors without an access
card can approach each entry gate, where
they can push a button activating an intercom
and a camera. From the safety of the
command center, security personnel are
able to see and talk with visitors to either
grant or deny them access to the facility.
A Unified Approach
ADT worked closely with Terry Oden,
security manager for Birmingham Water
Works. He has an extensive background
in the security industry, including 25
years with the Secret Service. As he
points out, there is no way a project of this
type can be completed in a piecemeal
fashion. Instead, it was approached in a
comprehensive and systematic manner.
Oden also had the full support of senior
management and a committed board of
directors, who were willing to appropriate
up to $15 million to get the job completed.
At the time, there were no federal grants or
other outside sources of funding for
Birmingham’s security upgrade.
Oden said his biggest obstacle is
complacency. Every day that passes
without incident tends to make people
more complacent. One way he works to
overcome that tendency is to continually
practice and drill employees on the system
so they will know how to respond in an emergency.
Public health and safety and the economy would be
placed in tremendous jeopardy following any significant
disruption in the supply. The entire water treatment and
distribution system must be fortified and protected. It
will require dedicated efforts from local, state and federal
law enforcement, other related agencies and the private
sector to be truly effective. It is a
system that is too important to allow
This article originally appeared in the January 2009 issue of Security Today.