Security Roles, Issues Facing Water Utilities Appear Never Ending

Water utilities, both drinking water and wastewater, play a crucial role in the health and well-being of our nation and its citizens. They are major contributors to the high standard of living and health enjoyed by Americans, and our dependency on them and the services they supply cannot be overstated. More than ever, we now need to protect our water utilities. Water security has become a prime concern today and will remain a top priority in years to come.
The EPA is the sector-specific agency for infrastructure protection of our nation’s water utilities. Water utilities have been key stakeholders and partners in EPA’s efforts to safeguard water infrastructure. These efforts have predominantly focused on three main areas—vulnerability assessments, security improvements and emergency response plans. Water utilities first need to know their weaknesses before making any security improvements, and vulnerability assessments accomplish this goal. Additionally, no security improvement is fail-proof so water utilities should be ready to respond to any crisis through emergency response plans.
With the enactment of the “Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002” (Bioterrorism Act), drinking water utilities serving populations more than 3,300 people have undertaken vulnerability assessments and are either developing or revising their emergency response plans. These excellent efforts begin to address water security, but security efforts need to be sustained over the long-term.
Key water utility approaches aimed at sustaining long-term security include partnering, planning and practice:

  • Partnering – It may seem a cliché to say “united we stand, divided we fall,” but this concept is very important when it comes to water security. Water utilities can’t do it all when it comes to security and will need outside help from various organizations—state and local agencies, emergency response providers, medical and public health organizations and law enforcement just to name a few. These partnerships need to be strengthened and remain strong for security to be effective. Everyone must work together and realize that they have a part to play in water security.
  • Planning – Water utilities must plan to sustain long-term security efforts. First, a culture of security needs to be established and become integral in a water utility’s operation. There needs to be complete support from utility ownership, management and staff that water security is important and will become a standard way of doing business. This approach will provide the foundation on which all other planning efforts can be built—from capital investment to updating security policies and emergency response plans.
  • Practice – The world of drinking water security is fast and ever changing. Water utilities need to be prepared and the best method of preparation is practice. Practice through drills and exercises will test partnerships and planning as well as finding areas that need improvement. Because new threats will arise, new tools, training and technology will also be developed to improve security. Water utilities need to keep up-to-date on the latest water security information and incorporate new information into their business practices.

Water security is here to stay. For its part, EPA will continue to improve drinking water security by focusing on the development of tools, training and technical assistance, information sharing, research and technology development. However, EPA will still need the continued partnership and support from water utilities for any successful long-term water security effort. Water utilities have a key part to play in keeping our nation’s water resources safe and secure. The security roles and issues facing water utilities may appear to be never ending, but given their vital importance, it is well worth the investment in time, effort and money.

Andrew J. Bielanski is an environmental engineer in the Water Security Division of the Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water at EPA. For further information, e-mail Bielanski.Andrew@epamail.epa.gov

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