Study Finds Water Utilities Need Security Funds

May 5, 2006

An expert panel formed by the Government Accountability Office (GAO, cited distribution systems as among the most vulnerable physical components of a drinking water utility, a conclusion also

An expert panel formed by the Government Accountability Office (GAO, cited distribution systems as among the most vulnerable physical components of a drinking water utility, a conclusion also reached by key research organizations, according to a report published by the GAO this week. Also cited were the computer systems that manage critical utility functions, treatment chemicals stored on site, and source water supplies. Experts further identified two overarching vulnerabilities: (1) a lack of information individual utilities need to identify their most serious threats; and (2) a lack of redundancy in vital system components, which increases the likelihood that a terrorist attack could render an entire utility inoperable.

According to over 90 percent of the experts, utilities serving high-density areas deserve at least a high priority for federal funding. Also warranting priority are utilities serving critical assets, such as military bases, national icons, and key academic institutions. Direct federal grants were clearly the most preferred funding mechanism, with over half the experts indicating that such grants would be very effective in distributing funds to recipients. Substantially fewer experts recommended using the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund for security upgrades.

When experts were asked to identify specific security-enhancing activities most deserving of federal support, their responses generally fell into three categories:

• Physical and technological upgrades to improve security and research to develop technologies to prevent, detect, or respond to an attack (experts most strongly supported developing near real-time monitoring technologies to quickly detect contaminants in treated drinking water on its way to consumers);
• Education and training to support, among other things, simulation exercises to provide responders with experience in carrying out emergency response plans; specialized training of utility security staff; and multidisciplinary consulting teams to
assess utilities’ security preparedness and recommend improvements; and
• Strengthening key relationships between water utilities and other agencies that may have key roles in an emergency response, such as public health agencies, law enforcement agencies, and neighboring drinking water systems; this category also includes developing protocols to encourage consistent approaches to detecting and diagnosing threats.

Based on the findings of its expert panel, the GAO recommends that as the EPA refines its efforts to help drinking water utilities reduce their vulnerability to terrorist attacks, the agency considers: how best to allocate security-related federal funds among drinking water utilities; which methods should be used to distribute the funds; and what specific security-enhancing activities should be supported.

To read the GAO report, Drinking Water: Experts’ Views on How Future Federal Funding Can Best Be Spent to Improve Security, visit

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