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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Preventing & Responding to Security Threats

Preventing & Responding to Security Threats

Facility and infrastructural security are an important component of any emergency response plan. Whether the outcome can result in vandalism, theft, terrorism, or a threat to staff or community safety, suspicious activity should always be taken seriously. When the city of Woodland Hills was alerted of trespassing at their water storage tank, the utility promptly issued a boil order until they could confirm that their water was safe to drink. These actions prevented any potential harm due to contamination leaving community members safe and reassured that their utility was taking an active role in water security. Evaluating risk to malevolent acts will allow your system to initiate or upgrade preventive measures and develop an appropriate response plan to protect staff and the community.

To prevent malevolent acts, start by taking an assessment of your facility’s vulnerabilities. Consider entry points, security code accessibility, chemical tanks, storage tanks, vehicles, utility equipment, hazardous chemicals, and infrastructure within the distribution or collection system. Infrastructure essential to operations and limited in redundancy or identified to be at greater risk to malevolent acts may require more meticulous security measures. To assess physical security threats, check out the Security Vulnerability Self-Assessment Guide for Small Drinking water Systems.

The goal in a vulnerability assessment is to determine where prevention measures can be implemented and develop a response plan to suspicious activity.  According to the Minnesota Department of Health, many facilities increase security by locking entry points, using external lighting, posting warning signs, requesting law enforcement patrol, fencing in critical infrastructure, or installing motion sensors, alarm systems, and video cameras. Once all preventive measures have been taken, develop a response protocol for each potential threat. The Association of State Drinking Water Administrators has developed response guidelines for security violations. In each response scenario, utilities should plan for how they can maintain internal, interagency, and external communication.

Utilities should practice emergency response exercises regularly and keep track of necessary changes to response protocols. During these exercises reserve time to monitor which staff have access to key entry points at the utility. Successful security programs will also build and maintain a close relationship with local law enforcement. This relationship will allow utilities to respond swiftly and efficiently in coordination with law enforcement when suspicious activity does occur.

Remember that final goal of these measures is to prevent any interruption in services, damage to infrastructure, and safety threats to staff and the community. For more information on Malevolent Acts check out the EPA’s Baseline Information on Malevolent Acts for Community Water Systems.

The Unique Challenges of Wildfires for Water Systems

The Unique Challenges of Wildfires for Water Systems

Recent wildfires in California’s Sonoma and Napa Counties have caused loss of life and significant damage not only to over 5,700 homes and businesses, but also to critical water infrastructure in the region.

In Santa Rosa, residents have been instructed to use only bottled or boiled water for drinking and cooking. According to the city's water engineer, the system is currently experiencing unusually low water pressure, due either to high volumes being used by firefighters or damage to infrastructure. She explains that when water pressure drops below a certain level, backflow prevention devices – particularly in the higher elevations of the system – many not work properly.

Loss of pressure is only one of the many unique and harmful effects wildfire can have on water systems. This 2013 Water Research Foundation report on the effects of wildfire on drinking utilities lists many more, especially the dramatic physical and chemical effects on soils, source water streams and water quality that would necessitate changes to treatment operations and infrastructure. In fact, according to the US EPA, long-lasting post-fire impacts (especially flooding, erosion and sedimentation) can be more detrimental to water systems than the fire itself. 

The WRF report also suggests mitigation and preparedness strategies for utilities, including using fire behavior simulators to identify areas to target for fuel reduction activities, such as this goat grazing program in California. The idea behind such collaborative programs is that the less vegetation fuel available for fires to consume, the better. 

The increase in wildfire incidents such as these across the country make it all the more important for water systems of all sizes to be prepared for the unique challenges of wildfires. A good way to start your preparation is by checking out WaterOperator.org’s listing of free wildfire resources by typing in the word “wildfire” in the search box.

No time to lose? The US EPA has a page of "rip & run" resources including this Wildfire Incident Action Checklist.

Hurricanes, Flooding and Wastewater Plants: What Have We Learned?

Hurricanes, Flooding and Wastewater Plants: What Have We Learned?

In recent months, there have been dozens of reports of wastewater treatment plants that have flooded due to heavy hurricane rains and storm surges in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and beyond. Both the sheer number of plants affected, and the extent and duration of the flooding have posed significant public health and technical challenges, often stretching communities to their limits

To add to these problems, many rural utilities were already struggling to keep their systems operating before the storms struck, so costly, complicated repairs or replacements of damaged infrastructure is simply not an option. For example, Patton Village, Texas had just completed a new wastewater plant  the first of its kind in their community — before Hurricane Harvey struck. Now they can only hope that USDA/FEMA emergency funding will be available to help repair the damage. And even once the systems are up and running again, it is not a given that water systems can count on water rate income to help with their O&M bills - many residents have fled their flood-damaged homes for good.  

The sad truth is that lately, floods have been affecting wastewater plants with unfortunate regularity, and not just in hurricane-prone areas. For example, in Central Illinois, the small town of Hutsonville's wastewater treatment plant has flooded 3 times in the last 2 years, up from once every 5 years, according to its contract operator Shannon Woodward of Connor & Connor, Inc.

Woodward's first piece of advice is not to build on a floodplain, but he also acknowledges that many communities do not have the capital funds for effective protective measures or relocation, and so operators must deal with the hand they are given. His second piece of advice: "Make sure all electrical controls, switch gears and transformers are above the flood stage. That way, when the flood waters subside, you don't have equipment loss and can get back into operation — even if it takes 3 to 6 weeks for the waters to recede." 

Mason City, another small town in Illinois, was able to fund improvements after a flood in 2008 cut off the town’s water supply and nearly overflowed the capacity of its wastewater system. The following year, the city built a stone wall around the water plant, installed flood sensors on the local river, and built effluent pumping stations for the wastewater plant. 

And this article tells the damage and recovery stories of two flooded wastewater plants in Rhode Island. According to the operators of these plants, it is essential to have a flood plan, even if you think your facility is protected. In addition, they maintain it is important to involve wastewater treatment personnel in emergency response exercises or in the incident command structure. On a practical level, the operators encourage SCADA systems to be elevated on the second floor in the operations building if possible. And lastly, they recommend you back up your files and documents electronically. Papers get wet, they say: move them to a dry storage facility. 

Finally, while every community has different characteristics and needs, there are some universal preparedness strategies for wastewater plants. The US EPA recommends practicing mitigation options as the best way to prevent floodwater from invasively appearing. Some of these options include crafting barriers around key assets, having an emergency back-up generator, and keeping key electrical equipment elevated. You can learn more about these options here, or you can watch this helpful video. In addition, many states have their own guidances, such as this one from Minnesota’s Pollution Control Agency.

Featured Video: WARNs in Action

Featured Video: WARNs in Action
WARNs have been a valuable asset to water and wastewater utilities for several years now. In the event of an emergency---ranging from a tornado to a flood to a major main break---fellow operators can come to your aid and help your utility get back on its feet. This is accomplished through a Mutual Aid Agreement.

Mutual Aid Agreements are often misunderstood. They are not set-in-stone requirements that you must give aid, regardless of your capacity to do so. Utilities volunteer to offer aid; no one is forced. Mutual aid agreements are different from regional partnerships. This past summer, we talked about the benefits of a full-blown regional partnership, complete with shared responsibilities among operators and centralized accounting and assets. Even regional partnerships can benefit from joining WARNs, since a large-scale emergency like a flood, wildfire, hurricane, or earthquake could still decimate an entire region. But if a regional partnership isn't of interest to your utility, a mutual aid agreement is still worthwhile. Signing on to a mutual aid agreement typically does not cost money, and in many cases utilities that volunteer to help can be reimbursed.

This 3-minute video from earlier in the history of WARNs provides a general introduction to the concept. It also describes an activation of COWARN in Colorado, in response to a major water contamination event in a small rural town.

To look for a WARN in your state, learn more about the idea, or view situation reports from WARN activations around the country, see the AWWA's WARN website. To see Illinois' ILWARN flyer for small systems, go here. And if you know of a particularly good WARN and small systems story, let us know!