Wisconsin legislators worry about water supply
Federal advisors suggest "guns and guards" for short-term, high-tech development for future

Updated: Thur., Oct 18 12:00 PM EDT

By Missy Jenco
The Marquette Tribune
Marquette U.

(U-WIRE) MILWAUKEE -- With an average 27 billion gallons of water being pumped daily across the United States, legislators and environmentalists have become increasingly concerned that the water supply could become a target for biological terrorist attacks.

To curb this fear, U.S. Rep. Tom Barrett (D-Wis.) has requested $2 million from the U.S. Department of Defense to improve the security of the water supply.

"Now, more than ever, protecting our nation's drinking water is of the utmost importance, and should be a priority for the agency charged with our nation's defense," Barrett said in a press release. "The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 demonstrated the lengths to which certain elements will go to weaken our nation. Any discussion of how to improve our national security must include the safety of our drinking water."

The money would be used to establish the Center for Water Security, which would be run by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Aquatic Technology and Environmental Institute.

The UWM center would put together a research program to improve detection of contaminants and biological pathogens in the water. It would also create an emergency plan for dealing with a biological attack.

Because water is such a necessary commodity and so widely distributed, it should be vigilantly protected, said Alphonse Zanoni, professor emeritus and director of Marquette's Water Quality Center.

"From a standpoint of terrorism, there's got to be concern there," Zanoni said.

Last week, the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and the Environment held a hearing on the risk of terrorism against U.S. water resources. Members of the FBI, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Tennessee Valley Authority and others testified.

"Before the tragic events of Sept. 11, security of water resources and environmental infrastructure was not a very high national priority," said U.S. Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn.), chairman of the subcommittee. "However, on that day, our nation learned that our own equipment and our own structures can be used against us."

Jeffrey Danneels, department manager at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, also spoke at the hearing. He stressed the need for developing risk assessment methods and security measures.

"An attack on the water infrastructure in our large urban areas does not require high-tech tools, well-organized teams or exotic chemicals," Danneels told the subcommittee. "A successful attack could cause widespread panic, economic impacts and a complete loss of public confidence, not only in the affected system, but also in water supply systems throughout the country."

Despite the immediate need for security, Danneels said that the solutions must be long-term.

"We need to encourage people to do the right thing," Danneels said. "The quick reaction is to put a lot of guns and guards out there. That is not a long-term solution."

Barrett's monetary request is currently under review by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense and is expected to go before the entire House within the next several weeks.

"Our collective goal is to make the water infrastructure an unattractive target of terrorism," said Danneels.

Danneels said that anthrax could be spread through a water supply, but dilution and filtration makes it a poor medium for transmission.