PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — U.S. water systems and national security is a multi-layered problem. Some of the major aspects of national security are protecting the water systems and access to quality water.
President Joe Biden in January launched a cybersecurity task force to support the country’s water and waste sectors.
Hackers around the world are already attempting to breach wastewater plant systems and trying to compromise water supplies in the U.S.
"If we don't think about how to protect our computer systems that control our water systems and our energy systems, there are likely to be an increasing number of attacks in the future,” said Peter Gleik, a scientist on global water and climate issues. “Those systems are increasingly vulnerable, and we are seeing more instances of cyberattacks."
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are more than 155,000 public water systems in the United States. Over 286 million Americans get their tap water from a community system. Eight percent of the U.S Community water systems provide water to 82% of the population.
The EPA also reported that water distribution systems are increasingly vulnerable to interruption in service from a terrorist attack, industrial accident or extreme weather event.
These are all the reasons why there is a push to increase security, whether from outside or inside threats.
“We have a moral responsibility because this is the only public utility service that consumers ingest,” said Rob Pauslon, the president, and CEO of the National Association of Water Companies. "If we don’t get it right or have a threat vector that violates or infiltrates an industrial control system messing with the chemical flows, we could have a national public health scare— hate to create that scenario but that’s the reality.”
It happened in Oldsmar, Florida in February 2021.
The water system was hacked when someone attempted to boost sodium hydroxide, or lye, levels in the water supply to be 100-times higher than normal.
That one incident caused several other water companies across the country to revamp their cybersecurity protocols, causing a ripple effect that reached the White House.
“In this case, we are regulated by the environmental protection agency, to use the word loosely, it creates mission failure for the EPA to be tasked with managing a portfolio of 51,145 systems,” Pauslon said. “The problem in cyber is that we are all operating in silos. We need to exercise together, meaning cyber exercising, we need to learn from each other, we need to share best practices. We need to adopt things like cyber mutual assistance. These are the challenges on the rise for the water sector in the U.S.”
On the West Coast, access to quality water is something communities consistently spar about.
However, across the globe, there are actual violent conflicts that stem from water rights.
“It is absolutely possible we will see and have seen already growing violence over water resources or allocation of water or using water as a weapon,” Gleik said. “There are more than 1,300 incidents in the database of violence associated with water resources.”
Gleik said it’s more important than ever that the U.S. handle the national security implications of water.
“We tend to not fight violently over water here,” Gleik said. “As populations grow, as economies grow, we are seeing more political conflict and economic conflict of who has access to water, who controls water and who has water rights. We’ll see impacts on our economy, decreases in agriculture production and food production. We’ll see disputes between cities and farms – which have turned violent in India and Iran for example."
When it comes to access to water in their community, there are many nonprofits fighting for water rights.
In Stockton, California organizations like Restore the Delta are trying to make a change by trying to improve the quality of water and access in the delta that’s part of the San Joaquin River. The goal is to improve the quality of life for the people living in and near Stockton.
“Water here is contaminated from mercury and harmful algae bloom,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parilla, who is part of Restore the Delta. “In our emergency drought orders, no one was paying attention to the harmful algae bloom. And because our youth has showed up for over a year to create a testing program, they have decided that exporters must start tracking what is happening here and report back to the regulatory agencies.”