Authorities move to safeguard water

Published Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2001, in the San Jose Mercury News

Mercury News

As the anthrax scare on the East Coast has many wondering about dangerous microbes in the air, key agencies around California are racing to make sure that people don't worry about another question -- ``What's in the water?''

Government water agencies and private companies that supply drinking water to millions of Bay Area residents have stepped up security of dams, treatment plants, pipelines and pumping facilities since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

They have worked quickly to protect facilities, hire guards and make sure dams are safe. Other safeguards are now in place to strengthen existing protections and keep biowarfare agents out of the water supply. While no terror-related attempts have been reported, water officials have put new importance on being prepared.

``Security has been increased at all levels,'' said David Jones, spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the federal Central Valley Project that sends water to many parts of California. ``Local authorities are looking at providing more security more closely. Everybody is in a heightened state of awareness.''

Officials say there is little likelihood that terrorists could put enough biological or chemical agents into the raw water supply to overcome the filtration and chlorinated disinfection processes that drinking water goes through before it reaches the tap.

However, there is concern that someone could damage the facilities that bring drinking water to the region from the Central Valley and the Sierra Nevada, as well as from local reservoirs and groundwater supplies.

Although water agencies won't discuss specific security measures, many have hired guards, installed alarms, restricted public access and increased monitoring of supplies to detect contamination.

Threat downplayed

Earlier this month, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman downplayed the threat of a successful bioterror attack on the nation's drinking water systems.

``People are worried that a small amount of some chemical or biological agent -- a few drops, for instance -- could result in significant threats to the health of large numbers of people,'' she said during an Oct. 18 visit to a water laboratory in Maryland. ``I want to assure people. That scenario just can't happen.''

Whitman cited dilution and treatment barriers that already protect most water systems, as well as stepped-up security measures. ``We believe it would be very difficult for anyone to introduce the quantities needed to contaminate an entire system,'' she said.

Nor does the FBI consider biohazard contamination a probable threat. Several published studies have noted that it would take many tons of contamination to imperil most water systems -- an amount that is neither easily obtained nor easily dispersed.

There have been four known efforts, all by domestic groups, to tamper with water supplies in the United States, according to a database compiled by the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

In the first, two college students formed a group called RISE in the early 1970s and produced more than 60 pounds of typhoid bacterial culture, which they allegedly planned to release into the water supplies of Chicago, St. Louis and other Midwestern cities. The plan was thwarted when members of the group went to police.

In 1984, a religious cult known as the Rajneeshees tried to sicken the people of a small town in Oregon by dumping a contaminant, believed to be either salmonella bacteria or raw sewage, into the town's water. But the attack apparently did little harm, as the contaminants were quickly diluted. Instead, the group turned to spreading salmonella in restaurant food, managing to sicken more than 750 people with food poisoning -- the only successful incident of bioterrorism recorded in this country until the recent spate of anthrax letters.

In 1985, officials in New York City got a letter threatening to contaminate the water system with plutonium trichloride unless a vigilante named Bernard Goetz, then awaiting trial for the subway shooting of four people, was released. Although tests showed an elevated level of radioactivity in the city's water 16 days later, it was never clear whether this was the result of deliberate contamination or a testing error.

Finally, an Arkansas-based survivalist sect called the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord made plans in the 1980s to poison the drinking water of a major city -- this time with a 30-gallon drum of potassium cyanide. The sect's compound was raided by federal agents in 1985, before a specific water system had been targeted. But studies of the plot have noted that the relatively small amount of chemicals in the group's possession would not have been enough to endanger most water supplies.

All those attempts may have failed, but the fact that they got as far as they did is fueling security precautions. FBI officials told Congress that the larger concern is protection of dams, treatment plants, tunnels and pipelines from damage that could disrupt the water supply or introduce contaminants into drinking water after it leaves treatment plants.

Santa Clara Valley water

``We've more than doubled our security forces,'' said Mike Di Marco, spokesman for the Santa Clara Valley Water District, adding that the new measures will cost the district more than $1.5 million by the end of this year.

The district, which operates 10 water conservation reservoirs in the hills around the Santa Clara Valley, is responsible for the underground water supply and imports water from the Central Valley in state and federal aqueducts and pipelines. It is the water wholesaler, selling to retail municipal and private companies that supply the Santa Clara County's homes, industry and agriculture.

Guards have been posted around the clock at the district's three water treatment plants and at the Pacheco and Coyote pumping plants that bring Central Valley water into the county, Di Marco said. Vehicles and people entering those facilities are subject to a search.

District reservoirs are not considered vulnerable to bioterrorism. ``Anthrax and smallpox -- they just don't work in that kind of setting,'' Di Marco said. ``Anthrax does not survive in water or ultraviolet light in sunshine.''

The filtration process at the treatment plants removes anything larger than one micron in size. Anthrax spores are larger, and if they did penetrate the filtration, ``our chloramine disinfection process kills it,'' Di Marco said.

``The bigger threat to the reservoirs would be somebody trying to do physical damage,'' he said. So the district is looking at ways to barricade the dams to stop public access, and has suspended tours and installed alarms.

With nearly a million customers in Santa Clara County, the San Jose Water Co. is one of the retailers that buy supplies from the water district.

``We're always concerned with public health, and now we're even on more heightened alert,'' said Vice President Richard Balocco. ``We've always had guards; the facilities have always been secure and not available to the public.''

Balocco said the company has taken additional steps since Sept. 11, ``but we're not at liberty to tell you what they are. We're concerned about people circumventing them.''

It's not just drinking water that concerns government officials. San Jose, which operates a municipal water system in some parts of the city, also has boosted security at the sprawling water treatment plant in Alviso, which processes the sewage of 1.3 million people in eight cities. The plant already had perimeter fences, floodlights, surveillance cameras, alarms and guards, said city spokeswoman Lindsey Wolfe.

Undisclosed security measures are in place within San Francisco's vast Hetch Hetchy system, which brings water from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park through enclosed pipelines to serve 2.4 million people in San Francisco and parts of San Mateo, Santa Clara and Alameda counties. Two Bay Area treatment plants disinfect the water with chlorine.

The San Francisco Water Department has hired a consultant to review the Hetch Hetchy system's security measures and recommend additional steps, said spokeswoman Beverly Hennessey.

``Parts of the system are more vulnerable than others,'' she said. ``We just don't want to compromise the system by telling the public.''

No guards are posted at the system's reservoirs, but watershed keepers live at the sites, she said. Although hikers can trudge around Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and motorists can drive across the dam, in general, ``there is not as much public access as in some of the other districts,'' Hennessey said.

Boating and fishing are prohibited except at two small reservoirs in the Sierra.

Security has also been beefed up in the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which brings water in three pipelines from the Sierra foothills to serve 1.3 million customers in parts of Alameda and Contra Costa counties. After being purified at plants in Walnut Creek and Orinda, the water is sent to 176 local enclosed storage reservoirs for eventual distribution to the district's retail customers.

``We have raised our antennas as high as they can go,'' said district spokesman Charles Hardy. ``We've added patrols around our facilities and increased our surveillance.''

Hardy said district officials are more concerned about the facilities than the possibility of water being poisoned with anthrax or some other toxin. ``It's just not real -- take one vial and boom,'' he said.

``We're talking about huge reservoirs,'' he said. ``It would take a really huge amount of that material.''

The water is already disinfected with chloramine to get rid of pathogens before delivery, Hardy said. And the district's laboratory tests the water daily.

``We're more concerned about the physical threat to the water system,'' Hardy said. ``We have several layers of security in place, not just a locked gate, a guard and a camera.''

There is reason for concern. Early this month, someone entered a locked district facility in Richmond, broke into a truck and stole district maps and a tool used to open water system valves.

At state, federal level

The big state and federal projects that move huge amounts of water from Northern California into the Bay Area, the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California also have instituted new security measures.

California Highway Patrol aircraft monitor the State Water Project's California Aqueduct, which takes water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to Southern California, with the South Bay Aqueduct branching off into Santa Clara County. State park rangers are enforcing ``no public access'' zones within 500 feet of state water structures.

Gov. Gray Davis has ordered rigorous testing of all 8,500 public water systems in California. The state Department of Health Services is responsible for oversight and regulation.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the federal Central Valley Project, also has clamped down. The project takes water from Shasta Dam to the San Joaquin Valley and Santa Clara County.

Bureau spokesman Jones in Sacramento said tours of Shasta Dam and others in the system have been halted, and access has been restricted to roads crossing some of the dams.

However, Jones would not comment on specific security measures.

``It's just not the way we do business,'' he said.