David McWhorter

Feb 9, 2009

As a homeland security consultant with clients that provide technologies for the protection of potable water, I try to Google “water security” at least once a week.  For some time now, I have noticed that this search term harvests many items dealing with water management or water rights, usually in arid countries or heavily farmed areas of the US.

Very few articles discuss the efforts dedicated to securing the water that has already been treated and stored for human use or agriculture. Occasionally, I will find a story about vandals who have breached perimeter security at a water tower.  Often, the breach is discovered by an employee of the water company during normal security rounds.  However, these discoveries usually come too late in a scenario involving intentional contamination, sometimes days or weeks after the breach.

For example, last year in California, police determined that someone had accessed the water in a tower. They then had to go door-to-door in the middle of the night to deliver a boil advisory to local residents.  In addition, the water company had to drain a significant amount of water from the tower and clean the tank.  How long people had been drinking this water before the discovery was made is anyone’s guess. The trespass could have happened as many as 30 days prior to the discovery. (The water was found to contain elevated levels of mercury, but investigators have not definitively linked this abnormality to the break-in.)  Aside from the public safety concerns and the public relations damage that the breach caused, the cost to the water company for draining and cleaning was significant.

In the UK, the government has mandated (in 2003) that access to potable water (typically, a hatch to an underground reservoir) be protected by intrusion detection devices.  These devices are tested and approved by the UK government to ensure minimal false alarms.  In the US and elsewhere, providers of potable water use various devices to identify intrusion and the presence of contaminants in the water supply but none that are uniformly tested, regulated or required.

These types of water security measures need to be adopted more widely here at home to ensure that our drinking water is safe.  Hopefully, the stimulus/infrastructure improvement package expected to pass this week will allow water utilities to pursue security improvements such as these, and Google will be able to send me more articles about securing the water we already have.

This piece was originally posted on Security Debrief.


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