Survey Examines Water Security Needs

Federal funding for water-industry security should first go to drinking water systems serving large population areas or critical service areas...

By James Laughlin

Federal funding for water-industry security should first go to drinking water systems serving large population areas or critical service areas, according to a majority of industry officials responding to a recent GAO survey.

The General Accounting Office's "Drinking Water: Experts' Views on How Future Federal Funding Can Best Be Spent to Improve Security" details the results of a Web-based survey that targeted 43 nationally recognized experts on security in the water industry.

When asked to identify what they believed to be among the top vulnerabilities of drinking water utilities, nearly 75 percent of the experts identified the distribution system. The other physical assets most frequently cited were source water supplies, critical information systems, and chemicals stored on site that are used in the treatment process.

When determining how federal funds for security should be allocated, the panelists said federal officials should weigh each utility's vulnerabilities against the characteristics of the utilities themselves, such as size and proximity to population centers.

About 90 percent of the panelists strongly agreed or somewhat agreed that allocation decisions should be based on vulnerability assessment information. Panelists favored funding priority for utilities serving high-density populations, with over 90 percent indicating that they deserve at least a high priority and over 50 percent indicating they deserve highest priority.

Utilities serving critical assets (such as military bases and other sensitive government facilities, national icons, and key cultural or academic institutions) were also recommended as high-priority recipients, while relatively few experts recommended priority for utilities serving rural or isolated populations.

When asked to identify the most effective mechanism for distributing federal drinking water security funds, over half the experts indicated that direct federal grants would be effective. Many also favored including a requirement for matching funds as a grant condition.

Fewer experts recommended using the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) for this purpose, particularly to support upgrades that need to be implemented quickly.

When asked to identify and set priorities for security-enhancing activities most deserving of federal support, the experts identified activities that generally fell into three broad categories:

— Physical and technological improvements including both physical alterations to improve the security of drinking water systems and the development of technologies to prevent, detect, or respond to an attack.

The need to develop near real-time monitoring technologies, which would be useful in quickly detecting contaminants in water that has already left the treatment plant for the consumer, had by far the strongest support.

— Education and training for both utility and nonutility personnel responsible for preventing, responding to, and recovering from an attack. These activities include, among other things, support for simulation exercises; specialized training; and multidisciplinary consulting teams to independently analyze utilities' security preparedness and recommend security-related improvements.

• Strengthening relationships between water utilities and other agencies (public health agencies, enforcement agencies, and neighboring utilities, among others) that may have key roles in an emergency response. This category also includes developing common protocols to engender a consistent approach among utilities in detecting and diagnosing threats, and the testing of local emergency response systems to ensure that participating agencies coordinate their actions effectively.

To view the report, GAO-04-29, visit the GAO's Website at www.gao.gov/new.items/d0429.pdf.

James Laughlin, Editor

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