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Threats to Water Supplies

Published on: 8/24/2015 9:15 AM
Water is indispensable in all circumstances, a life-giving symbol of fertility and purity; a vital resource of which humankind has always tried to regulate the use and management. 
Water supply systems are critical infrastructure characterized by the source of water, reservoirs and holding facilities, aqueducts and other transport systems, the filtration, cleaning and treatment systems, the pipeline, the cooling systems, and other delivery mechanisms that provide for domestic and industrial applications, including systems for dealing with water runoff, waste water, and firefighting.
Threats to drinking water supplies have plagued humans since the dawn of history. These threats range from the consequences of natural disasters which may be spectacular and highly disruptive (e.g., floods, spills of oil or toxic chemicals) to the more mundane, but not necessarily less important, such as impacts from storm pipe discharges or runoff from agricultural lands. Water is the quintessential target. Because of its importance to life, the public has a very emotional response to its water supply, more so than any other utility. People typically do not become emotionally attached to their electric service, or to their telephone or their natural gas provider. But they do become very emotionally involved with their water, because it's the only utility that is consumed. So a threat to contaminate a water supply or the actual contamination of a water supply is, in point of fact, the most significant of the infrastructure interruptions, because it literally has the ability to impact people's lives. The threat of terrorism upon all of our infrastructures, including water must be addressed.
Although the probability of a terrorist threat to drinking water is extremely low, the consequences could be very severe for exposed populations; thus, this conference concluded that national attention must be focused on detecting threats from biological terrorism, as well as other catastrophic events in drinking water supplies, and on preventing human exposure wherever possible. As a country, on the whole, this is a threat that we have always perceived as only happening in faraway places.
On September 11, 2001, the concept of what constitutes a credible threat to the security of our nation’s critical infrastructure changed. Threats that previously had been considered low risk are now being examined and incorporated into emergency plans and procedures. Ongoing efforts to upgrade infrastructure security have taken on a far greater importance and urgency.
Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01, there have been extensive efforts at the federal, state and local levels to coordinate water security.
On a federal level, the Environmental Protection Agency redoubled efforts already underway to promote security at America's 168,000 public drinking water and roughly 16,000 wastewater facilities. EPA is partnering with states, as well as the water community to help the greatest number of water systems to be more secure as soon as possible. These security activities have been further strengthened through the Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act, which President Bush signed into law on June 12, 2002.

On a local level, Santa Clara County’s water resources management agency, the Santa Clara Valley Water District (SCVWD) has long been at the forefront of preparedness and protection of the county’s public water system. Like all public utility agencies the Santa Clara Valley Water District has operated under heightened security measures since 9/11/01.
There are still no specific, credible threats against Santa Clara County's water supply/distribution system; experts continue to believe that Santa Clara Valley Water District facilities are unlikely targets. However, the district is taking all prudent steps to protect the integrity and safety of the county's water supply, as well as district personnel.

SCVWD and all the private and publicly owned retail water agencies in the county are working with national, state and local intelligence organizations and law-enforcement agencies to safeguard the water supply. Acting upon recommendations from counter-terrorism experts and associations of water agencies the district implemented the following measures:
  • Around-the-clock presence of security guards at all water district treatment plants.
  • Video monitoring at all key facilities.
  • Intrusion detection and alarm systems at all key facilities.
  • Daily inspection of key facilities.
  • General increase in already heightened security procedures such as identification for employees and visitors.
  • Suspension of public tours at key facilities.
  • Continuing emphasis on security at staff briefings.
  • Revised security procedures, including district response to bomb threats.
  • Testing to ensure that water quality continues to exceed required federal and state standards.
Although intelligence information shows that the reservoirs are not likely targets for terrorism, the water district has increased its reservoir security patrols. The reservoirs are primarily used to replenish underground aquifers, so damage to them would have no immediate impact on customers. And because of the large amount of water in each reservoir, only an enormous amount of contaminant would cause any harm.
The California Highway Patrol is providing aerial surveillance of the entire California Aqueduct system including the South Bay Aqueduct. Water coming to Santa Clara County from this aqueduct is treated before it is piped to homes and businesses.
In the advent of an emergency, the district and the water companies would immediately contact law enforcement, local health officials and the local news media to notify the public of any troubles and, if appropriate, inform residents what they need to do.
Cooperation, coordination and communication are essential elements of the district's response to threats, should they arise. Measures in effect include:
  • Sharing security information and planning information with Santa Clara County’s public agency and investor-owned water retail agencies, as well as with nearby water districts that depend on the same sources of imported water.
  • Participation in the Santa Clara County Operational Area as well as other local and regional organizations and associations, and mutual-aid agreements.
  • Use of Standardized Emergency Management Systems/Incident Command System (SEMS/ICS) procedures to manage response and mitigation efforts to real or perceived threats.
  • Continuous notification of intelligence, information and alerts from the Office of Homeland Security, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy, Department of Transportation, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Awareness National Security Intelligence Reports, as well as the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies and American Water Works Association.
In these times of extraordinary events, law enforcement officials are asking everyone to be extra vigilant in day-to-day activities. It is recommended that you pay extra attention to your surroundings. If you see a suspicious activity or person around storm drains, fire hydrants, the reservoirs, water treatment plants or other water facilities, call your local police department by dialing 9-1-1.