U.S. Builds Networks To Combat Continuing Water Supply Threats
Protecting water supplies always has been a priority for local utilities, but since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a host of natural disasters have reminded communities that terrorists are not the only threats to water systems. Water utilities have shifted their security plans from a terrorism focus to an approach that considers all hazards. “A lot of the response and readiness we put in place for terrorist threats work really well for other emergencies,” says Jim McDaniel, water system chief operating officer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. “[We’ve] retooled some of those things to make them better for security, but I think the return we’ll see is that they will work better for so many disasters.”
The increased emphasis on water security, along with a shift toward protection from all hazards, marks great progress, says Diane VanDe Hei, executive director of the Washington-based Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies and WaterISAC, an online security resource for water utilities. Plenty of work remains, however, as the water industry continues moving toward resiliency.
Across the board, water storage and treatment facilities have been strengthened with perimeter controls, access protocols, inventory assurance and reinforced buildings. Before Sept. 11, “we didn’t have hardened facilities,” says Billy Turner, president of Columbus Water Works in Columbus, Ga. “Now, you can’t get in [the facilities] unless you have a [digital identification] card. And, we have sophisticated camera systems.”
In many areas, emergency response systems have been improved. For instance, Virginia Beach, Va., learned how vulnerable it was a few years ago after a hurricane wiped out power for a week, causing a number of sewer overflows in the streets. Since then, the city has equipped all of its 400 sewer pumps with emergency power and increased the reliability of the power sources, says Mayor Meyera Oberndorf.
Utilities also have formed networks to help each other respond to and recover from emergencies. The most popular agreements are Water/Wastewater Agency Response Networks (WARNs), developed by each state from a nationwide program. Following disasters, WARN members can contact other utilities for assistance with personnel, equipment, materials and other services.
Some larger utilities have questioned the value of joining a WARN, but many have found the networks beneficial regardless of a utility’s size. “As a large utility, you find out that the people who need assistance are usually smaller than you, and you might question how they could reciprocate the assistance,” McDaniel says. “But WARNS have been refined, and the value of having them has become more apparent. There are ways that utilities of all sizes can help each other. For example, from the materials side, everyone has different types of motors, pumps, pipes and valves, but if you cast a wide net, you may be able to find someone who has the same equipment as you.”
In addition to joining California WARN, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power signed an agreement with its counterpart in San Francisco to provide similar assistance in the event of a catastrophe. “It’s a customized agreement that may be even more valuable than WARNs because it includes how to handle payment, liability, reporting and other details,” McDaniel says. “And geographically, we’re close enough to help each other quickly but far enough away that hopefully, the same disaster wouldn’t affect both of us.”
Many water departments also have strengthened their ties to other agencies in their jurisdictions. “We’ve built stronger relationships with law enforcement, and they have hazardous materials labs that have the ability to test for things that we didn’t know existed before,” McDaniel says.
Utility executives in Fort Collins, Colo., strive to maintain the relationships that developed after Sept. 11 with other city departments. “It takes a lot of work because they’re all very busy as well,” says Kevin Gertig, acting water resources and treatment manager for Fort Collins Utilities. “They may overlook utilities when training, but try to involve yourself in that if it applies. For instance, they may be reviewing for a dam failure or doing pandemic planning, and you have to break out the security issues.”
Strides also have been made in coordinating federal activities with local utilities, VanDe Hei says. The federal government’s National Response Plan has a sector-specific element for water utilities, and local agencies have formed the Water Sector Coordinating Council, which includes 16 members that meet quarterly, to respond to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on policy matters.
To read the rest of the article originally published in our sister magazine, American City & County, please visit americancityandcounty.com/water/operations_mgmnt/water-security-utilities-protection/