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WaterOperator.org Blog

COVID-19 in Wastewater Surveillance

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Over the past two years, researchers have turned to wastewater to find out more about the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In September of 2020 the CDC developed the National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS) to help monitor and better understand the spread of COVID-19 throughout communities. The NWSS works directly with public health departments to track the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the wastewater of communities across the country. They are able to do this because humans infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus shed the virus in their feces making it detectable within community wastewater systems. The CDC has been able to gather a large amount of data because 80 percent of households in the United States are served by municipal wastewater collection systems. Wastewater surveillance programs have been implemented across the country in places like UtahWashington D.C.MassachusettsConnecticut, and Illinois. Programs have also been implemented internationally

Wastewater surveillance technology has proven to be very beneficial to communities because it is able to detect the virus even before people start showing symptoms. This is helpful because once health departments are aware, communities can immediately take stricter precautions to prevent the spread of the virus. You can stay up to date on the presence of COVID-19 in your community by checking the COVID Data Tracker which provides regularly updated information on the presence of SARS-CoV-2 levels in wastewater at testing sites across the country. 

Most Clicked Newsletter Sources in 2021

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Over the course of 2021, we published dozens of newsletters relaying the most important and applicable information throughout the year. There were some sources that stood out to our readers more than others. Listed below are the most clicked sources that were listed in our newsletters throughout 2021. 

‘They thought I was so low’: Women say they were harassed, bullied, ignored at the powerful water agency
This Los Angeles Times article discusses the experiences of three different women in the water industry around California who have each experienced various forms of harassment at work. 

Water Infrastructure Receives Low Grades on ASCE Infrastructure Report Card
The water sector continued to receive poor marks on the American Society of Civil Engineers 2021 Infrastructure Report Card. 

Florida Officials Warn of 20-Foot ‘Wall of Water’ if Reservoir Breaches
A wastewater treatment facility in Piney Point Florida had a leak so concerning it caused hundreds of people in the surrounding area to be evacuated. 

Deadly Water Tank Explosion Caught on Astonishing Video in Central Valley
A 1.5 million gallon city water tank exploded in Central Valley California and it was caught on camera.

Chlorine Shortage: Cities Ask People to Reduce Water Use
States across the West were experiencing a chlorine shortage that was beginning to impact their drinking water utilities.

Worsening Climate Extremes and Failing Infrastructure are Inexorably Intertwined
In the United States, we are seeing that the effects of climate change are exacerbated because of the country's failing infrastructure.

Ida Remnants Pound Northeast With Rain, Flooding, Tornadoes
Hurricane Ida wreaked havoc on water and wastewater utilities across the country. 

“Flushable” Wipes are Ruining Sewage Plants
Verge Science explains why "flushable" wipes are not actually flushable.

Resilient Strategies Guide for Water Utilities
This tool can help utilities develop plans that address their unique needs and priorities.

WEF Announces Operator Scholarships
The Water Environmental Federation (WEF) announced the availability of scholarships of $2,500 to $5,000 for operators seeking certification or professional development.

River Runner Tool
This innovative tool can be used to track the path of a raindrop from anywhere in the United States. 

Water Affordability Dashboard
A dashboard of information about the cost of water services and affordability for single-family residential homes in the United States. 

Child Dresses Up as Water Tower for Halloween 
A TikTok video went viral of a little girl who dressed up as a water tower for Halloween. 

Operator Educates Millions on TikTok
A wastewater treatment plant operator gained millions of views on TikTok after posting numerous informational videos on various wastewater topics.

 

Preparing Your Water System for Winter Weather

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Is your water system prepared for winter this year? The extreme weather that can come with the winter season is only growing more severe as climate change intensifies. Many areas across the country have experienced some of the coldest temperatures they have ever had in the last decade. In this era, winter weather can even impact the most unexpected places. 

The historic winter outbreak that occurred in Southeast Texas earlier this year proves that unexpected winter weather can happen anywhere. The storm caused power outages, broken pipes, and billions of dollars in damage because the state was not prepared for winter weather. Even though you think your utility might not have to worry about preparing for winter because you live in a historically warm climate, it never hurts to be prepared.

Preparing for winter is also a smart financial decision. Water officials say that allowing backflow preventers and outdoor water pipes to freeze can be a costly mistake. Frozen water lines can also cause expensive water leaks. Although winter weather can be intense and unpredictable, there are things that you can do to be more prepared. 

Impacts of Extreme Cold and Winter Weather
Cold weather can bring freezing temperatures, heavy snowfall, and ice storms that can have multiple compounding impacts on a community that may include, but are not limited to: 

  • Pipe breaks throughout the distribution system.
  • Loss of power and communication lines.
  • Limited access to facilities due to icy roads or debris such as downed tree limbs.
  • Reduced workforce due to unsafe travel conditions throughout the service area.
  • Source water quality impacts due to increased amount of road salt in stormwater runoff.
  • Potential flooding risk due to snowpack melt and ice jams (accumulations of ice in rivers or streams).
  • Potential surface water supply challenges as ice and frozen slush can block valves and restrict intakes.
Wastewater Cold Weather Maintenance 
Much like drinking water utilities, wastewater utilities can experience ice formation in various process components and reaction rate changes in chemical, physical, and biological reactions. However, they also experience ones specific to wastewater facilities.

Cold weather can impact the bacteria that many wastewater treatment plants use to treat their wastewater. This is because the bacteria typically perform best between 75 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit and when the temperature dips below that the bacteria struggle to consume the waste. When bacteria slow down their consumption of waste BOD (Biological Oxygen Demand) and COD (Chemical Oxygen Demand) levels in the effluent rise. One way to maintain acceptable effluent levels is by adding additional chemicals through the process of bioaugmentation. 

Strengthen Your Resiliency 
Tips to help prepare your utility: 

  • Make sure all your employees have the proper equipment.
  • Check your supply inventory.
  • Stock up on supplies in case your employees need to stay overnight.
  • Exercise your valves.
  • Weatherproof your booster stations.
  • Note whether your employees have the equipment they need for these conditions.
  • Stock extra fuel.

The 2017 small systems FYI from the Indiana Section of AWWA covers additional winterizing tips for water utilities specifically related to security, hydrants, storage tanks, backflow, emergency preparation, wells, worker needs, and pumping equipment. The U.S. EPA recommends coordinating with your state’s Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network (WARN) if an emergency should arise. 

Customer Communication
Communicating with your customers is an important part of preparing your utility for winter weather. Communicating with customers helps to create a trustworthy relationship, especially during an emergency like an extreme weather event. 

You can help make sure your customers are prepared by sharing resources like information on how to winterize their homes and prevent frozen pipes. You can also draft water advisory messages ahead of time to ensure they follow public information protocols and have appropriate distribution channels.

Defend Your Water System Against Drought

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Many states across the United States are currently experiencing one of the worst droughts in American history. Some are even experiencing a "megadrought", meaning that they have been experiencing drought conditions for many years. Climate change also exacerbates drought conditions by increasing the average global temperature and causing irregular weather patterns. Westerns states such as CaliforniaArizonaMontanaNevadaNew Mexico, and Idaho are experiencing some of the most extreme effects. Drought is particularly devastating because it is slow coming but its effects are widespread.

Increased drought conditions can result in:

  • Loss of water pressure and supply 
  • Poor water quality 
  • Limited access to alternative water sources 
  • Increased customer demand 
  • Increased costs and reduced revenues 

For example, in Nevada, the drought has had disastrous impacts on Lake Mead, the largest water reservoir in the United States that currently provides water for over 20 million people across California, Nevada, Arizona, and some of Mexico. The reservoir is now at the lowest it has been since it was filled in 1937 and the situation is so extreme that the federal government is expected to declare an official Lake Mead shortage by the end of the summer. Drought can also negatively impact drinking water providers that rely on lakes because they can increase the number of algal blooms in freshwater. Algal blooms not only contain chemicals that are toxic to humans but large amounts of algae can also clog water filters and damage the water treatment process. 

A total of 31 states are currently experiencing moderate to severe drought across the country. Research also shows that the drought has become progressively worse over the past few decades. The U.S. Drought Monitor website has a feature that allows you to monitor the level of drought happening in your area.

Like most natural disasters, rural and low-income communities are often hit the hardest by drought conditions because of their lack of access to resources and infrastructure. Rural farmers are also greatly impacted by drought because of the lack of water available for irrigation, making it very difficult to support themselves. 

Droughts are a public health issue because they affect access to clean and safe drinking water. Practicing emergency response and preparedness is the best way to minimize severe impacts from drought. To avoid serious impacts from droughts, water utilities should:

  1. Conduct observation and monitoring 
  2. Practice planning and preparedness  
  3. Predict and forecast 
  4. Maintain good communication and outreach with customers 
  5. Use interdisciplinary research and applications 
We've gathered some of the best resources from our library to help you dig in further to this topic.

Resources for Drought Assessment and Resilience

Incident Action Checklist – Drought
This checklist from the U.S. EPA provides various ways for water and wastewater utilities to prepare for, respond to, and recover from a drought. 

10 Ways to Prepare for a Drought Related Water Shortage
This resource from the Rural Community Assistance Partnership lists ten ways to prepare your small water system for water shortages.

Small Water Systems and Rural Communities Drought and Water Shortage Contingency Planning and Risk Assessment
This report can be used to help strengthen your water shortage vulnerability assessments and risk scoring. 

Drought Contingency Plan for a Retail Public Water Supplier
This is a sample form that can be used as a model of a drought contingency plan for a retail public water supplier. 

Drought Management Plan A Template for Small Water Systems
This document outlines mitigation measures that water managers can take to greatly minimize the effects of drought. 

100 Water Saving Tips from “Water. Use it wisely.” 
Communicate some of these water-saving tips to your customers to help them conserve water during a drought. 

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.

ISAWWA COVID-19 Utility Impact Survey

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To assess management approaches and concerns utilities have adopted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Illinois Section of the American Water Works Association (ISAWWA) released a utility survey to their membership via email on April 3, 2020. Available for one week, 141 members responded with 139 of these respondents representing public water or wastewater systems. Eleven survey questions focused on operational, managerial, and financial changes implemented in response to the pandemic as well as system concerns and needs moving forward. Three additional questions gathered information on utility demographics. Results from the survey can be found in the report: COVID-19 Impact on Utilities. In this blog we will highlight some of the key findings below.

The report indicates that the primary concerns for Illinois utilities focus on maintaining staff health, staff availability, and the continuity of operations. To respond to the pandemic, many systems have implemented staff scheduling changes, split shifts, and the reduction of staffing hours. The survey report goes on to note how other changes are being implemented and how those changes are impacting operations. Regarding revenue, many systems believe it is still too early to understand the full financial impact of the pandemic and have not begun planning for worst-case scenarios. Of those who have noticed changes in revenue, few have witnessed a positive impact on finances. The majority note that they are experiencing lowered commercial water use, an increase in non-payments, cuts to capital projects, or hiring freezes. Emergency response plans offer an effective way to mitigate many pandemic challenges, however the survey notes that only 56% of respondents are developing plans.

Additional questions from the report elucidate the training needs identified by respondents and how utilities are complying with an order by the Illinois Commerce Commission to discontinue water shutoffs.

Of notable interest to small systems, the report includes a section to highlight how system size impacts pandemic response and concerns. To develop these size related trends, the ISAWWA asked respondents whether they represented a small system serving a population of 5,000 or fewer, a medium system serving between 5,001 to 50,000, or a large system serving greater than 50,001. The report reflects that small systems generally have less capacity to respond to the pandemic likely as a result of fewer employees, fewer resources, and the use of a single staff member to maintain a large portion of the system. On the other end, though large systems may have a greater capacity to address the pandemic, they must also overcome the challenges that result from managing a greater number of staff members. Small systems may have fewer challenges related to staff management, however they must also plan for absenteeism more carefully.

For a more detailed review of the survey results, we recommend reviewing the report for yourself. Reading utility responses, concerns, and approaches to managing the virus may assist your system in planning for future challenges and concerns. Visit our web page COVID-19 Resources for Water Systems to find clear and concise information, tools, and resources to make managing these pandemic challenges a little easier.

WaterOperator.org Recommends Agencies Postpone Operator Certification Renewals During COVID-19

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As communities tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, the critical services that water and wastewater utilities supply are ultimately pulled into the spotlight. While reliable drinking water and wastewater services remain essential to public health, they also sustain adequate hygiene practices to prevent the spread of illness.

Central to the continuity of operations for every utility lies our water and wastewater operators. Under normal operating conditions, operators, especially those of small or rural systems, must juggle the challenges of aging infrastructure, regulatory compliance, customer communication, board collaboration, and regular operations and maintenance. During the pandemic these challenges can be exacerbated by handling COVID-19 customer concerns, cross training staff, updating contingency and emergency response plans, connecting with critical suppliers, acquiring backup equipment and parts, reaching out to neighbors or mutual aid groups, etc. Operators must take on this workload while sustaining personal health and safety.

As operators manage the ongoing challenges associated with the Novel Coronavirus and Stay-at-Home orders, we have observed that several certifying agencies are extending or postponing their deadlines for continuing education requirements and the recertification of licenses expiring during this pandemic. WaterOperator.org believes that the focus of our operators should remain on continuity of operations and customer outreach without having to manage renewal and recertification requirements at this time. Our concern for small system operators, especially those of rural communities, is that some do not have access to reliable internet. Internet access that may have previously been obtained through public libraries or recreational centers is no longer accessible as a result of community shutdowns leaving operators with no alternative locations to complete online training for certification renewal. Given the extent of these shutdowns, online trainings do not offer a reliable substitute for in-person training sessions at an equal opportunity to all operators.

Many agencies are already working to address the accessibility and burden of licensing renewal. Among the certification programs who have provided relief for operators, agencies in Montana, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wisconsin as well as the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona are working to suspend or extend the time period for licensing renewal and continuing education requirements. In Ontario, Canada an emergency order offers relief to utilities by allowing operators with recently expired licenses to continue work while temporarily allowing non-certified, but qualified individuals to perform operational duties if deemed necessary. Taking a different approach, the drinking water program in Kentucky is currently waiving late fees for renewals until August 31, 2020. While licenses can still expire, the Kentucky Operator Certification Program will consider this grace period when performing inspections or alternate staffing plans. At this time other agencies are actively considering similar measures to the examples we’ve highlighted.

Where these actions are not possible, we ask that agencies consider supplementing other educational resources to operators in need. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency notes on their website that correspondence courses are available for operators to earn continuing education credit. They recommend reaching out to local training providers to find these courses and other training alternatives. The Inter Tribal Council of Arizona is also researching self-guided distance learning and the loaning of training books distributed via mail.

For some operators, achieving educational requirements and licensing renewal through the duration of the pandemic will create an added burden that may impact their ability to protect and serve the citizens of their communities. Other operators may be left unable to run their facility due to an expired license. We are grateful to the primacy agencies that have taken positive action to support their operators. WaterOperator.org believes that these measures will help utilities of all sizes to protect their communities.

Resources to Complete Your Risk & Resilience Assessment and Emergency Response Plan

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Drinking water utilities should be aware of the risk and resilience assessment (RRA) and emergency response plan (ERP) requirements mandated by section 2013 of the America’s Water and Infrastructure Act (AWIA) of 2018. Under section 2013, community water systems (CWS) serving populations of 3,300 people or more are required to perform a risk assessment using the results to develop or update their ERP. The due date to certify the completion of these requirements is dependent on the population served by the system. If a CWS provides water to a consecutive system, they must include the population of the consecutive system in the total population served. 

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*After submitting the RRA, the ERP must be submitted and certified within six months. Community water systems will be required to review and revise, as necessary, their RRA and ERP every five years after the initial certification dates. 

These new AWIA requirements amend section 1433 of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), originally created from the Bioterrorism Act of 2002. The Act focused on incidents of terrorism and required CWS’s serving more than 3,300 people to conduct a vulnerability assessment (VA) and develop an ERP. The new AWIA requirements place an emphasis on the risks of malevolent acts, natural disasters, and cybersecurity. Since the vulnerability assessments from the Bioterrorism Act are now more than 10 years old, AWIA approved the destruction of these assessments. Utilities that want their VA returned instead can submit a request letter to the EPA before the due date of their risk assessment.

To assist in meeting the new requirements, the EPA has developed several resources designed specifically for AWIA. Resources and tools are uploaded on this EPA web page as they become available. The risk and resilience assessment is the first requirement due under section 2013 and necessary to develop your ERP. The assessment must include six criteria. Following the assessment, the ERP must include four criteria in addition to any state requirements. In this blog we will provide information about these AWIA resources in addition to other documents that can be useful to complete your RRA and ERP. 

EPA's AWIA Resources:

Resiliency and Risk Assessment:

Emergency Response Plans:

Other Helpful Resources to Get Started:

Resiliency and Risk Assessment:

Emergency Response Plans:

To certify the completion of your RRA or ERP, the EPA has developed guidelines for certification submittals via their secure online portal, email, or mail. If your system needs any additional help to meet these requirements, the EPA will be hosting in-person and online training sessions for each region. If these document suggestions don’t meet your system needs, check out our document library to find a variety of resources on risk assessment and emergency response.

An EPA Guide for Climate Resiliency Planning

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Many utilities are developing plans to increase short-term and long-term climate resiliency in response to extreme weather events, changing water availability, or the risk and resiliency assessment requirements set forth in the America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 (AWIA). To assist in the early developmental stages of resiliency planning, the EPA's CRWU program designed the Resilient Strategies Guide for Water Utilities. This online application prompts utilities with a series of questions about their system and its resiliency concerns to provide recommend strategies that will decrease vulnerability. This web application was updated in August 2019 to allow utilities to specify their system size and find funding sources for the projects they want to pursue.

Both water and wastewater systems can use the tool. The foundation of the guide is built using the CRWU Adaptation Strategies for Climate Change and a funding list maintained by the Water Finance Clearinghouse. Completing the guide takes roughly 20 minutes. After answering a series of questions that identify your system type, size, location, assets, preferred resiliency strategies, and funding interests, the application will produce a report that can be used as a starting point to develop a more complex plan.

Once the guide is launched, you will start by answering questions about your facility and its resiliency priorities. The priorities indicate the concerns that your system wants to address. You can filter the list of priorities in the left hand menu to narrow your focus to topics such as drought preparation, flood protection, energy efficiency, etc. The ‘More Info’ button will elaborate on any option you're considering. Once you’ve selected your priorities, you’ll indicate what assets are present within your system. From there you can select your preferred planning strategies that have been suggested based on your previous answers. Filter the strategies with the left hand menu to narrow down your options by cost or category. For example, if you want to exclude strategies that require new construction, you could check the ‘repair & retrofit’ category instead. The last section recommends potential funding sources that might assist with the strategies you've selected earlier.

The strategies and funding sources will be used to generate the final report. Continue to the end and select ‘Generate Report’. This report will include a detailed summary of your answers, contact information for any funding sources you've selected, and case studies relevant to your utility. To save a copy of the report you will have to copy and paste the results into a Word document. If you have a CREAT account, you can select ‘Export CREAT File’ to download a file that can be imported into your CREAT account’s existing analysis. CREAT (Climate Resilience Evaluation and Awareness Tool) is a more in-depth risk assessment and planning tool that can be used once you've done your initial research. You can preview the CREAT tool framework with their guide here.

Data Protection and Cybersecurity for Small and Medium Systems

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Many water utilities rely on online technology and computer systems to increase their working efficiency. In the office space, data management software, pay roll systems, customer billing programs, utility websites, and social media improve customer services and provide an organized method to retain and access utility information. On the operational side, employees may rely on remote access control systems such as SCADA or smart metering to monitor or control systems while performing maintenance in the field. These control systems allow for improved response times and monitoring.

Yet as we all learned from Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility. Without sufficient cybersecurity measures, systems risk the health and security of their customers. Successful attackers can steal customer personal data such as credit cards, social security numbers, and contact information. They may attempt to deface utility websites compromising customer confidence. If your system uses online process control systems, hackers could lock out utility access, alter treatment processes, damage equipment, and override alarms. The American Water Works Association (AWWA) has listed a variety of cyberattacks and their consequences in its 2018 Cybersecurity Risk & Responsibility in the Water Sector Report. These attacks resulted in leaked customer information, considerable financial losses, altered chemical dosing, and even source water contamination. Just recently staring in May of 2019 the City of Baltimore has been held hostage by an ongoing three week cyberattack that demands $100,000 in Bitcoin to free city files and water billing data.

There are many types of cyberattacks including password hacking, the exploitation of software vulnerabilities, denial of service, and malware. Common malware includes ransomware, spyware, trojan horse, viruses, and key loggers. Attacks can even happen through opportunity theft, improper disposal of computer equipment, or phishing attempts where thieves pose as legitimate organizations requesting confidential information.

To prevent cyberattacks, start by identifying vulnerabilities, developing a multi-tier security plan, and actively enforcing that plan. The EPA has developed a guide explaining 10 key components for a cybersecurity plan that includes planning worksheets and information on how to respond in the event of an attack. Systems should plan to update software regularly and require strong passwords that are different for each account. Installing anti-virus software and firewalls is also effective. A security plan should include measures to educate employees on cybersecurity awareness and limit access to security information based on job function.

For an in-depth list of security practices, read through WaterISAC’s 2019 guide to reduce exploitable weaknesses or the EPA’s Incident Action Checklist. The AWWA’s guide on Process Control System Security Guidance for the Water Sector can aid systems using smart technology. To improve social media and website security, start with Hootsuite’s social media security tips and Sucuri’s website security tips.

If a data breech does occur, utilities will want to have and established protocol to resolve and mitigate potential damage. The Cyber Security Adviser Program with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) offers regional affiliates that will assist systems in vulnerability assessments, plan development, and informational support. While the costs associated with response, forensics, and legal fees can be expensive, waiting to take action can incur an even greater cost. Remember to keep an active cybersecurity plan and, if incidents should occur, report them to local law enforcement, the DHS, and WaterISAC.