Homeland Security and Public Safety

Protecting the Water Supply Requires a Multipronged Approach

There are numerous, ongoing threats to our water supply. Some of them could be catastrophic.

Water supply

Threats to water, a requirement for life, make for compelling story lines. The movie Batman Begins includes a poisoned water supply as a plot point, for example. But threats to the water supply aren’t just the stuff of modern fiction.

“The idea of poisoning drinking water goes back a long way,” said James Salzman, a professor of law and environmental policy at Duke University and author of Drinking Water: A History. The Roman emperor Nero is said to have poisoned his enemies’ wells in the first century. J. Edgar Hoover obsessed over threats to the water supply during World War II.

For all the drama of someone slipping poison into a reservoir, however, the reality is that many of the threats to both drinking water and wastewater are more mundane, ranging from wildfires to maintenance issues.

The infrastructure for drinking water is massive. From treatment plants to the distribution network, it consists of millions of miles of pipes and has millions of access points. “When you just look at the numbers, it’s obvious that the drinking water system is impossibly big to completely protect,” Salzman said. “That’s the bad news. The good news is that our systems are designed intentionally to protect against threats.”

The myriad threats eventually creep into the emergency management realm. During a disaster, it’s imperative to have access to potable water. There are instances where a hazard — natural or man-made — can turn into a disaster because of contamination to drinking water.

There are, of course, small-scale “instances every year where the system fails, and there are boil water alerts,” Salzman said. “In terms of drinking water, we can get that into a disaster area quickly. The concern is sanitation: How do you get the waste away?” If sewage contaminates the water supply, there’s a risk of cholera, typhoid and other diseases. “You’re basically back in the 19th century.”

There are many sources of threats to the water supply, some caused by humans, either intentionally or unintentionally, and some natural. Although in movies, the villain may sneak up to a reservoir and pull a test tube full of poison out of his coat, the reality is that with most chemicals in most reservoirs, it would not be nearly that easy.

“You’d need several dump trucks of cyanide or arsenic to poison a large water supply,” Salzman said. It would be difficult to acquire that much poison without attracting notice, let alone get it into the reservoir. Then there’s the fact that the reservoir water is monitored, so authorities would realize something was wrong.

The system is constantly under attack from biological threats, Salzman said. Whether the problem happens naturally or is introduced intentionally, the water system has built-in protections such as chlorination. “Cholera is bad whether it occurs naturally or is put into the reservoir, and the system is designed to neutralize that,” he said.

Government officials are expressing concern about cyberattacks as a threat to the United States’ infrastructure. Water systems are no exception.

With cyberattacks, “you can do it to multiple water systems at the same time, and you don’t have to be local,” said Joe Weiss, managing partner of Applied Control Solutions, a cybersecurity consulting company.

And attacks by other nations aren’t the only issue. Some cybersecurity problems reported so far have been unintentional.

Weiss said that with the proper training, policies and system architecture, the water infrastructure can be protected in most cases from unintentional cybersecurity problems, disgruntled employees and unsophisticated hackers.

Protecting the water supply from the most sophisticated cyberattacks — such as those from a foreign government — is more difficult because most countries use similar equipment, so they all know its vulnerabilities. On the other hand, Weiss said, because the U.S. could launch similar attacks, countries may be less inclined to start this kind of conflict.

There is always a trade-off between performance and security. “For performance, you want to have everybody able to talk to each other,” Weiss said. “For security, it’s exactly the opposite: You want the system as closed as you can make it.”
Governments are increasingly concerned about cyberattacks. “Cybersecurity remains a concern across all of the critical infrastructure areas,” said Terry Clawson, a spokesman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). “In the last 18 months, there have been two cybersecurity incidents reported to the TCEQ.”

Still, disrupting the water supply via a cyberattack “would require a very high level of sophistication,” Salzman said. One of the easiest ways to disrupt any type of infrastructure would be to blow it up. The water system is as vulnerable as other types of infrastructure. 

Wildfires can cause runoff that pollutes the water supply. Earthquakes can break pipes and shut off electricity, preventing the movement of water. Hurricanes and even droughts can wreak havoc on water systems.

“Texas has seen significant and widespread damage to both wastewater and drinking water facilities as a result of hurricanes,” Clawson said. “As a result of Hurricane Ike in 2008, some residents in the Houston area were without power and water for up to four weeks.” (Subsequent legislation requires public drinking water systems in specific Texas counties to develop plans to demonstrate how they will operate in emergency conditions.)

A slow-moving natural disaster, drought is nonetheless a major problem in some areas. The drought that started in 2011 caused some systems in Texas to experience a significant decrease in their water supply. To address drought-related problems, the TCEQ works with other state agencies on state-level emergency assistance. “As an example, state agency partners developed the Emergency Drinking Water Annex, a document that details management and response for public water systems with 180 days or less of water supply,” Clawson said. In addition, “the TCEQ intensively monitors a targeted list of public water systems that have either limited or an unknown supply of water remaining.”

The U.S. does a poor job of maintaining its water infrastructure, according to the 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, released in March by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

The group rated several U.S. infrastructure types, and the ratings for the water-related categories were poor: D for dams, D for drinking water, D- for levees, and D for wastewater.

Issues can arise from the age of the nation’s water infrastructure. There are places in the U.S. where the pipes were laid just after the Civil War, Salzman said.

Margaret Steen  |  Contributing Writer

Margaret Steen is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine.