- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 3, 2003

When threatened by potential disaster — whether a hurricane track or an elevated homeland security threat level — most individuals buy bottled water. It’s a natural instinct, since water is essential for life. That necessity also makes drinking-water systems an inviting target for terrorists.

Al Qaeda has tried to acquire information on water supply and wastewater management practices in the United States. Last May, the terrorists specifically threatened to strike at U.S. water supplies. While the attack did not happen, the water system is still vulnerable.

So, what should be done? This week, the General Accounting Office (GAO) released a report on how federal funds should be spent to improve water security. It is not definitive, but it does offer a number of worthwhile recommendations, and so should serve as a starting point for eventual legislative action.

The report said that water-distribution systems appear to be the most vulnerable to terrorist attack. They can be tapped into at multiple points. Since the water flowing through has been treated for contaminants, a poison would not be detected until it started to afflict individuals. Source water, whether from reservoirs or groundwater, is thought to be less vulnerable to potential attacks. Large water volumes will dilute potential poisons and source water is cleansed in treatment plants.

In response to concerns about the safety of water-distribution systems, vulnerability assessments were ordered by the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act signed by President Bush in June 2002. It calls for all water systems serving populations of more than 3,300 people to report potential vulnerabilities by the end of June 2004. To that end, Congress allocated more than $100 million through this fiscal year.

Federal grants are likely to be the best means to fix the vulnerabilities that are found, possibly coupled to a matching-funds requirement. Experts agreed that priority should be given to those water systems serving high-density populations. High priority should also be given to water systems serving critical assets, such as military bases and other sensitive government facilities.

The GAO report suggested that the funds be spent on three general areas: improved cooperation and coordination between those running water utilities and their counterparts in public health and law enforcement; improved training for both security and technical personnel; and improved physical security for water-system infrastructure. On the last point, experts thought that water systems were in greatest need of monitors capable of detecting and providing information about potential contaminants.

The GAO report offers a sensible basis upon which to build the implementation process. Policy-makers should follow its lead.

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