Hydro Defense

Despite spending millions on security upgrades, drinking-water systems are still vulnerable to sabotage.
by | April 2007

For a few hours last spring, Blackstone, Massachusetts, thought it might be dealing with many communities' most dreaded post-9/11 nightmare: In the dead of night, intruders scaled a 14-foot security fence topped with barbed wire, demolished an electrical panel and smashed their way through a 2-inch-thick steel door. Then they scrambled atop the town's year-old, 1.3-million-gallon water tower in a remote wooded area and kicked in its protective fiberglass cover. When the break-in was discovered, local officials had no choice but to assume the worst: Terrorists had poisoned the drinking water that supplies 9,000 businesses and homes in this community 50 miles southwest of Boston.

As it turned out, the perpetrators were three Blackstone teenagers bent on mischief. At the worst, it's suspected that two 15-year-old boys urinated into the tank during the caper; the Boston Herald couldn't resist running a headline about Blackstone's water tank "whiz kids." But state and local officials didn't find the situation so amusing. By the time the teens were heard bragging about their exploits the next day, Massachusetts environmental regulators had issued a "do-not-drink" order shutting down the town's water system. Schools and local businesses closed for two days, and Blackstone officials spent more than $40,000 to flush and backwash the tank, repair the facility, and buy bottled water for students. "Our system was not contaminated, but it was compromised," Raymond W. Houle Jr., Blackstone's town manager at the time, remarked after the incident.

The Blackstone episode made clear that the nation's drinking-water systems remain at risk for more malevolent assaults that could truly threaten the lives of thousands, if not millions, of Americans. But after spending millions of dollars to build security fences, install tougher locks, hire armed guards and foil intrusion by computer hackers, water utility operators acknowledge they can't completely protect all their water sources, reservoirs, storage tanks, pumping stations, treatment plants and thousands of miles of pipes against sabotage.

In the federal Bioterrorism Act of 2002, Congress ordered 8,600 community water systems that supply 3,330 or more people apiece to conduct formal assessments of weaknesses that could expose their facilities to deliberate attack. Federal law doesn't mandate that water systems actually take steps to improve security; Congress last year exempted treatment plants from a new law regulating how chemical facilities safeguard dangerous chemicals such as the chlorine that utilities stockpile to disinfect drinking water.

To help New England's numerous small community systems, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Boston office circulates a "Top 10" list of steps to protect drinking water supplies Those measures advise local utility operators to draft emergency response plans, identify alternative water supplies, stay in touch with local police and sheriff deputies, post emergency numbers at pump houses, install lights around treatment plants, fence and lock wellheads and manholes and "do not leave keys in equipment or vehicles at any time."


Those may reflect only common sense, but in major cities that are the most likely targets, big metropolitan water agencies have been forced to take more elaborate precautions to protect their extensive and technologically vulnerable facilities. Since 2001, for instance, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has nearly doubled its security force, increased water testing 50 percent, bought two new helicopters to patrol aqueducts and pipelines, and begun fingerprinting and investigating the backgrounds of all its employees. New York City's Department of Environmental Protection spent $100 million on fencing, security cameras and five new precinct stations as the city tripled a special police force that guards 19 upstate reservoirs and three protected lakes in a 1,900-square-mile watershed that supplies water to 9 million people.

This February, New York City beefed up its patrols after a pipe bomb was discovered 3,000 miles away in the California Aqueduct, which carries water to Southern California. Officials concluded a fisherman attempting to illegally stun fish probably had placed the bomb, reports Pete Weisser, an information officer for the Department of Water Resources. "DWR does not discuss security issues in detail," Weisser adds. "Along with many other utilities and water agencies, DWR has increased security and today regulates access and monitors activities at its facilities."

As Blackstone and other small rural communities have discovered, that's not an easy task. In the past few years, vandals have also broken into the Volusia County, Florida, water treatment plant, and a storage tank serving 400 customers in two Washington State subdivisions. Water was shut off to Vermont's Lyndon State College and 200 nearby homes after five rugby players pried the cover off the town's water tank. "It's not that difficult to get up on top of a water tower. Every high school kid in the country has done that during his senior year, usually to write his girlfriend's name on it," says Ralph Mullinix, the water and power director for Loveland, Colorado. "You can harden your perimeter around your key facilities, but the fact is that water systems are very vulnerable. All you have to do is go upstream and put something in the river just above the intake." Mullinix says.

Municipal drinking water is delivered through such an extensive array of natural watercourses and manmade facilities--from the headwaters to household taps, and then back to rivers and lakes through sewage and stormwater systems--that securing supplies against every intruder will never be practical. That leaves government officials exploring ways to detect contaminants that saboteurs might pour into the system and immediately set off alarms to keep people from drinking them. For years, Loveland's treatment plant has kept a tankfull of trout swimming in its supply that are susceptible to damage from chemical substances. Three times, Mullinix says, the trout began dying right after farmers upstream dumped copper sulfate to kill algae in irrigation canals draining into the Big Thompson River that supplies domestic water for the city's 60,000 residents. That may be a primitive alarm, "like the canary in the mine," he says, "but it does tell you something."

Along these same lines, New York City, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., now monitor water supplies with more sophisticated technology developed 20 years ago by the U.S. military. Water agencies keep common bluegill fish swimming in aquariums filled with city water-- with the chlorine removed--and continuously monitor their respiratory behavior through electrodes and complex computer software. The system calls an alert if six of the eight fish start showing signs of stress that might stem from toxic materials like cyanide, pesticides or solvents. The bluegills have proven sensitive enough to detect reservoir sediments that divers kicked up 40 miles away, and the fish are regarded as more reliable than currently available man-made sensors.

Government and private researchers are working on more sophisticated sensors, but the prospects are hard to judge. Loveland agreed to try out a monitoring system designed by Colorado State University engineers and a California-based company, but Congress has yet to fund the project. While keeping the details hush-hush, EPA's water security research program recently confirmed that the Greater Cincinnati Water Works has begun testing a computerized detection system that Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico developed. Whether those fixes pan out or not, "that's a Band-Aid solution," contends Kevin Morley, a security expert for the American Water Works Association. "At the end of the day, whether bluegills or a black box tells you there's something in the water, the question is 'What do I do now?'"


Water-utility operators are now concluding they'd better start planning to deal with the consequences when their facilities unexpectedly get taken out. The threat of terrorism created public fear that has spurred Congress to fund homeland security programs, but local utilities have recognized that natural disasters are likely to pose more devastating threats to both drinking water and sewage disposal.

A decade ago, California's water agencies formed a mutual aid pact to help each other cope with damaged systems. Florida utilities forged their own agreement after the 2004 hurricane season; Texas adopted a plan after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita two years ago, and Morley says utilities in at least six more states are circulating their own plans to come to the aid of stricken community water systems, regardless of how the damage is caused. "In the water sector," Morley says, "there's been a recognition that there should be much more planning for resiliency: How do you take a hit and keep on ticking?"

Planning for such "all hazards" response is catching on, and federal and state regulatory agencies continue working with AWWA and other industry organizations to devise security benchmarks to determine "how do we know we are better off than we were five years ago?" notes Bridget O'Grady, the policy and regulatory affairs director for the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators. While natural calamities may be more likely than terrorism, there's a resignation among regulators and utility managers alike that a terrorist group or a disgruntled individual could be capable of deliberately contaminating somebody's water supply--and that no community can afford to let its guard down. As Elizabeth Hunt, Vermont's drinking water planning chief, points out, "after 9/11, we can't just assume that it's only some kids goofing off."