Protecting Water, Diluting Threats, Saving Lives

The logo of the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority includes the phrase “Water is life” – an appropriate way to emphasize the importance of water. In May 2013, a Massachusetts state trooper came upon seven people trespassing near the Quabbin Reservoir in Ware, which supplies drinking water to most of the Boston area. Although the members of that group were later cleared of charges of criminal activity, they unintentionally helped publicize a continuing concern about the potential vulnerability of local water supplies from not only natural disasters but also, particularly in recent years, terrorist attacks.

A Long Journey to the Nearest Faucet 

The shoreline of the Quabbin is slightly longer than 118 miles, which encompass 24,529 acres of water, with another 115 miles of shoreline along its tributaries. There is no way to physically secure such a vast area because the manpower costs alone would be prohibitive. Additionally, the land surrounding the Quabbin, which is similar to that of many reservoirs across the nation, is a parkland used not only for fishing but also recreational activities. The managers of the local watershed must, therefore, balance the safety of the water supply with other valuable uses for the same area.

The Boston water supply begins in the Quabbin, travels a “water highway” to several intermediate reservoirs, enters various treatment facilities, and finally pours from millions of faucets throughout the communities in and around Boston itself. The Massachusetts Water Resource Authority (MWRA), which is responsible for ensuring the safety of the water supply, meets that responsibility through the automated real-time monitoring of potential threats at every step along the route toentify the presence of possible threats.

The monitoring process is similar in many respects to the way in which a traffic camera follows the flow of cars and trucks on a continuing basis. Sampling the water by staff on foot at best would provide only a snapshot of conditions that might change very rapidly before any preventive action to stop a potential disruption could be taken.

A Winning Combination: Design, Hardening & Patrols 

The Quabbin itself holds upward of 412 billion gallons of water, with an average flow of 158 million gallons per day. From a terrorist’s point of view, the sheer volume of contaminant needed to damage this amount of water makes simply pouring poison into a reservoir an impractical mode of attack. Those responsible for physical security of a reservoir, though, must still rely on a combination of design, hardening, and patrol.

The design of the system can improve security by keeping the local flow of water deep underground and out of the reach of those who may want to harm it. The hardening of various potential bottlenecks along the underground flow is another helpful way to provide greater security against sabotage. The final step is to carry out, by frequent but random patrols, unpredictable spot checks of the entire system – such as the one that interdicted the seven trespassers at the Quabbin.

The Quabbin is the largest manmade water reservoir in the United States, but even small reservoirs can have various operational and jurisdictional issues that must be addressed. The selection of the coordinating law enforcement agency and the structure of the response usually are determined by such factors as the ownership of the reservoir and/or the operational destination of the water. Whatever the criteria used, all stakeholders in the system must be involved, and must also be kept informed in the planning meetings, be provided applicable procedural information, and be notified of various changes that might occur. Without effective collaboration and open communications, the water supply could become vulnerable with only a patchwork of coverage and potential holes that may be exploited. As always, the security arrangements agreed upon should be in writing, and legally incorporated in a local plan, political agreement, or statute.

In short, the District of Columbia is right: Water is life. The U.S. water system as a whole has been designed with its filtration, disinfection, and distribution processes necessarily being community-wide efforts and, therefore, both a major strength and potential weakness. Nonetheless, it is imperative, in every community throughout the nation, that this essential lifeline to good health, and to everyday life in general, be secure, clean, and available – in massive quantities.

Joseph Cahill
Joseph Cahill

Joseph Cahill is the director of medicolegal investigations for the Massachusetts Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. He previously served as exercise and training coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and as emergency planner in the Westchester County (N.Y.) Office of Emergency Management. He also served for five years as citywide advanced life support (ALS) coordinator for the FDNY – Bureau of EMS. Before that, he was the department’s Division 6 ALS coordinator, covering the South Bronx and Harlem. He also served on the faculty of the Westchester County Community College’s paramedic program and has been a frequent guest lecturer for the U.S. Secret Service, the FDNY EMS Academy, and Montefiore Hospital.



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