A Brief Discussion of Water Security Issues

Following the September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attacks


 Robert E. Hebert
Vice Chairman

ECO Resources, Incorporated
Sugar Land, Texas


The National Council for Public-Private Partnerships
Washington, D.C.


December 12, 2001

Since September 11, 2001 there has been a painful realization that America is at risk of terrorist attack. Prior to the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, we have generally felt removed from the death and destruction that occurred periodically throughout the world, but not in America. Even the Murrah Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City was seen as the workings of insane Americans – more in line with a school shooting or an ex-employee attack than a worldwide terrorist conspiracy. As President Bush has said, we now must realize that we are a target for terrorism, that we have been for some time and that we will be into the foreseeable future. The dismantling of Osama Ben Laden’s Afghanistan organization and disruption of Al Qaeda’s network is only a start of a long process to make the world safe from terrorists of all types. Potential terrorists may be found as individuals or within organizations espousing:

Radical Ideologies

Religious Fanaticism

Single-Issue Fanaticism (includes ex-employees)

Nationalist Fanaticism

Third-Party State-sponsored Fanatics (Iraq, Libya, etc.)

Wherever they arise, the United States will appear as a natural target due to our wealth and our traditions of individual freedom, and it is a sad fact that those freedoms that we hold so dear make us all the more vulnerable to attack. However, that vulnerability can be countered to a large extent by proper preparation in every arena of risk, including our water systems.

Since September 11, the bar of terrorism has been raised for those who would spread their poison and increase the number of potential victims. Our responsibility to those we serve requires that the water industry take steps to review and revise, as needed, those security measures applied to protect this vital commodity. It must maintain an ongoing effort to assure that this necessity of life cannot be turned into a weapon of terrorism. The responsibility for action rests with all water utilities - large or small, public or private. Illness and death arising from the contamination of a large water supply, or a few scattered small ones, has the capability to strike terror in every American heart. If we become threatened by sabotaged tap water, how do we go about our day? How do we let our children go to school? Do we eat out? The opportunity for triggering widespread terror far out of proportion to the actual damage done makes our water supplies a natural target of interest to potential terrorists.

Protection from terrorism, or any other act of aggression, stands on three legs of support: Prevention, Detection and Response. Failure to maintain any leg places a water system at risk, but over concentration on one or two legs also places a water system at risk. An effective program of prevention, detection and response must be balanced and must match the resources available within each utility. To be well prepared, prevention, detection and response measures must be ever present, designed for effectiveness and periodically reviewed to assure that their effectiveness is not compromised through neglect as time passes. Remember, on or before September 10, how many of us would have thought that the attacks of September 11 would have, or even could have, occurred as they did. Terrorists will always strike at targets that give the maximum chance for success. That means strikes when and where they’re least expected, in a manner that no one thought to prevent, or where those responsible for security failed to act effectively.

What do we do? Here are some ideas for reference as you go about reviewing and revising your own security procedures: Be mindful of the three legs of security




No one leg can be ignored in favor of another, therefore:

Realize the threat is real.

Stay calm, but prepare Now.

Fully assess the risk before acting.

Understand all your security options.

Don’t spend money foolishly.

Be sure even low-cost options are acceptable for the long-term.

Pursue the most cost-effective options for your specific utility.

There are alternatives such as entry alarms, remote TV surveillance, security patrols and anti-personnel fencing. Each has an associated cost and security benefit. Each may be combined with others to provide a higher level of redundancy. The choice of each security measure used in a water utility should be made following a comprehensive vulnerability assessment that estimates the degree of risk and allocates personnel and financial resources to prevention based on each utility’s capabilities. Policy and procedures for prevention, and for every leg of security, must be reviewed and approved at the city council, utility board of directors or corporate board of directors level for each water utility, upon completion of the vulnerability assessment and consultation with customers, political leaders, regulatory agencies, utility operators, consulting engineers and local law enforcement and emergency response agencies. Prevention options must be implemented that are effective and sustainable by the utility into the foreseeable future. There are no short-term fixes for prevention.


Security experts generally agree that water systems are most vulnerable at the point where finished water is stored and distributed. This conclusion stems from the observation that reservoirs and aquifers are extremely difficult to contaminate due to the large volumes of water involved and the fact that these raw waters are subject to treatment and disinfection prior to storage as finished water. Wells developing ground water are enclosed mechanical operations located at secure, or securable water plants, and are not easily accessed for the delivery of contaminants.

However, finished water is stored in relatively small quantities, generally in ground storage tanks of 10,000 to 1,000,000 gallons, while distribution systems provide numerous points of entry with which a contaminant can be introduced into finished water. Finished water storage can be protected by well-planned security measures for each water plant, but the vulnerability of the distribution system requires that an on-going detection program be implemented to assure that any deterioration in water quality is quickly identified and followed by a rapid response and investigation. Sadly, current testing requirements throughout the United States utilize a time-line that, while adequate for most health purposes, fails to provide the early-warning or instantaneous notification required to detect an intentional contamination. For example, in Gideon, Missouri an outbreak of salmonellosis in 1993, resulting from a combination of natural contamination and poor maintenance, caused almost 600 people to become ill in this town of 1,104 residents. The event was triggered by contamination introduced during a distribution system flushing on November 10, 1993, identified by a local hospital on November 29, with fecal coliform sampling on December 16 and ‘boil water’ notices finally sent on December 18 – fully 38 days after the initiation of contamination There are many things that could have been done to speed the response to this outbreak, but the one thing that could not be avoided is the two days to complete the colieform testing. Two days is an eternity when a system has been intentionally contaminated. Security requires faster detection methods, but at present the technology is limited, very costly and subject to numerous false positives.

In-line chlorine measuring systems offer one low-cost option for utilities utilizing chlorine as a disinfectant. Spaced logically throughout a distribution system and tied into a telephone alarm system, they can give rapid notice of chlorine residual deterioration. However, not all possible contaminants react with chlorine. The following chart shows some possible contaminants and their resistance to chlorine:

Agent Type Stability in H2O Cl2 Tolerance
Anthrax Bacteria 2 years High, Spores resistant
Cholera Bacteria Stable Low, easily killed
Plague Bacteria 16 days Unknown
Salmonella Bacteria 8 days, fresh H2O Low, inactivated
T-2 mycotoxin Biotoxin Stable High, resistant
Microcystins Biotoxin Probably stable Resistant at 100 ppm
Ricin Biotoxin Unknown Resistant at 10 ppm
Botulinum Toxins Biotoxin Stable Inactive by 6 ppm, 20 minutes
Cryptosporidiosis Protozoan Stable Oocysts resistant

It is very difficult to acquire any of these agents in sufficient quantity and quality to do harm to a water system, and a large number of potential contaminants can be deactivated by chlorine. But those such as Ricin and microcystins require Cl2 residual levels that generate noticeable taste, odor and possible long-term health issues by themselves. For these and other contaminants resistive to chlorine, alternate detection measures such as continuity and turbidity measurement devices can be considered. Whether using continuous chlorine, turbidity, continuity testing, or a combination of all three as a security monitoring system, the measurements will be subject to occasional false positives, since measurement fluctuations can be caused by something other than intentional contamination. This is especially true when in-line monitoring is performed in the distribution system. Events such as fire flows, line flushing or water line breaks can disrupt normal flow patterns resulting in small amounts of silt being disturbed in the lines. The resulting turbid water can reduce residual chlorine plus cause high continuity and turbidity simultaneously. Response plans should take these natural occurrences into consideration and allow for rapid investigation of any symptom, but withholding additional action until the problem source can be determined. Over response to a symptom can create that sense of panic that all terrorists desire to achieve, and that all water utilities seek to avoid.

New equipment is being developed that will greatly speed the early detection of, and testing for, biological and chemical contamination. These devices include:

DNA Microchip Arrays

Immunologic Techniques


Optical Scan Techniques

Single Cell Count and Short Incubation Dye Tests

Some of this technology is now available for military use. However, military units are subject to a higher degree of false positives than is considered acceptable for public use (a false positive may be acceptable when you’re knowingly placing yourself in harm’s way, but is not acceptable for triggering system wide contamination responses in a public water system). The actual equipment used in monitoring water safety should be developed as part of a thorough vulnerability assessment study for each water utility.



The key to response is to plan in advance of an event, thereby allowing the utility to respond, not react. How do you decide that you have an event?

Treat every symptom as real until proven otherwise.

Avoid panic, or panic generating responses.

Use sound troubleshooting techniques.

Eliminate or confirm the symptoms quickly.

The following points are vital to proper response to a water security event:

Identify and recruit local resources:

  1. Police agencies
  2. Emergency Response Agencies
  3. Environmental Agencies
  4. Health Agencies
  5. Water Laboratories

You don’t have to have all the resources for effective

response if you know of other local agencies that have

something you need, and if you have established a

working relationship with them in the event of a

contamination incident well in advance. In an event,

there is no time to find out who has what.

Develop a specific response trigger for your adopted

detection program.

Pre-set responses to the triggers, and follow-up responses

as symptoms are eliminated or confirmed.

Match your responses to:

  1. Detection capabilities
  2. Possible health impact
  3. Pre-determined required action(s)

Past experience in water contamination situations indicates that risk has been elevated in nearly every case by slow and inadequate monitoring, detection processes that often start after the event has occurred and slow, poorly crafted curative actions. Planning together in advance of an emergency can pay tremendous safety dividends.


This brief overview of current water security issues is intended to be an initial primer for elected officials and managers of small to medium-sized investor-owned water utilities. Many other resources are available to those wishing to investigate the questions and recommendations posed here in greater detail. Here are some internet locations that are available for that purpose:

www.cdc.gov (Center for Disease Control)

www.epa.gov/safewater/security/secfs.html (EPA)

www.nipc.gov (National Infrastructure Protection Center)

www.infragard.net (U. S. Government Partnership for


www.awwa.org/public_ep/ (AWWA)