November 4, 2002
Security examined at water plants
By: Nancy Gaarder, Omaha World-Herald
When you turn on the faucet, you take for granted that clean water will come out. But in these post-Sept. 11 days, the folks who provide that water are taking little for granted.
More than a year after the 2001 terrorist attacks, efforts to improve security at water systems across the country continue. And those efforts don't always come cheap.
Forty-one Nebraska communities are among thousands nationwide that are undertaking "vulnerability assessments" of their water systems, as required by a new federal bioterrorism law. Many have already increased spending and shored up security. The assessments are required of communities with populations greater than 3,300.
Omaha's Metropolitan Utilities District has tripled its spending on security, to about $750,000 a year. Lincoln is spending about $30,000 more.
Water systems are among the essential services that federal authorities believe are potential targets of terrorists.
Every day, state officials sort through reports of possible threats, said Jack Daniel, the Nebraska Health and Human Services System official who oversees water systems for the state. He estimates that fewer than a half dozen have been serious enough to pass on to those who run local water systems.
"You don't want to be yelling 'wolf, wolf' all the time," he said.
The federal government is requiring utilities to examine their pipes, water treatment and storage, physical barriers, computer and automated systems, chemical handling and vulnerability to a loss of power or disrupted transportation.
The Environmental Protection Agency is spending $53 million to help large utilities assess their weaknesses. M.U.D., for example, will be reimbursed for up to $115,000 spent on its assessment.
Jerry Obrist, chief engineer for Lincoln's water system, said the "rigorous" assessments required by the federal government will give the city a thorough look at its system. Just as important, he said, the review analyzes which solutions will work best.
"It's very important to know whether what you do will be effective," Obrist said.
Lincoln's assessment will be completed in March. The city will make some changes right away, while others will be phased in as money allows, said Obrist, who expects a jump in costs.
"Anything that is critical will be done immediately," Obrist said. "Somehow, we'll find the money."
Since 9/11, M.U.D. has added security officers and improved fencing, gates and locks. Likewise, Lincoln has replaced all of its locks, repaired fencing and improved communications with law enforcement, and is replacing its front gate.
M.U.D. contracts with off-duty police officers and Corporation Security and Investigations of Lincoln for security. Lincoln uses its own staff and is studying whether it needs to add private security officers. Both utilities rely on local law enforcement.
"You can have all the national security mandates you want, but essentially, all security is local," said Tom Wurtz, general manager for M.U.D. "If you detect something, and your local law enforcement agency doesn't respond, your security isn't any good. We have had excellent cooperation with local authorities."
To a certain extent, those who run water systems are reluctant to talk in detail about security.
"You can't tell a burglar where the alarm is going to be," Wurtz said. "You just have to trust that we're doing everything reasonably possible."
The public plays an important role in maintaining security, Daniel said.
"Common sense and a good set of eyes out there is the best thing you can do," he said. "Times are changing. I wouldn't assume the best. I would assume the worst. If you see something, turn it over to authorities and let them check it out."
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