Of all resources, water is the most critical to our daily lives. Our bodies depend on it and our gardens simply cannot thrive without it.
In many areas of the country, we depend on public utilities to provide safe drinking water to our homes.
Even in more rural areas where wells are commonly used, there are risks to the groundwater supply from industrial and agricultural processes.
Our water supplies are extremely fragile and aging (some pipes still in use are from the 1800s). It doesn’t take much for the threat of water contamination to become reality. A simple water main break can put a boil advisory on the water supply of thousands of homes. A natural disaster, like the flooding in Colorado that introduced E. coli into water supplies throughout flood stricken areas, can decimate a water supply quickly.
Even more dangerous than all of this, however, is the threat of a bioterrorist attack targeting public water supplies on a global scale. Even the chemical weapons debacle in Syria should serve as a reminder about the fragility of our society and how quickly life can be permanently altered by biological and chemical agents.
Terrorism & Our Water Supplies
Following the September 11 attacks, the government realized that public water supplies represent one of the most susceptible infrastructures for future attack.
This meant that over 160,000 public water systems providing water to over 300 million Americans needed to assess the real danger from a potential bioterrorist attack.
What experts discovered is that the biggest danger isn’t the water treatment facilities. These facilities are manned 24 hours a day and process so much water that an effective bioterrorist attack would require literally truckloads of contaminant to be effective. In addition, many potential biohazard threats would most likely be discovered by testing equipment within the facility.
However, the distribution system is another matter. Once water has left the treatment facility, all bets are off in terms of security. A terrorist plot could easily inject contaminants into major water pipelines serving large cities.
Even more alarming is the fact that many experts think a bioterrorist water attack could actually originate inside a home or on the street. By pumping contaminated water into the existing freshwater system via a kitchen sink or a fire hydrant, biological contaminants could easily be introduced into a system without any filtration or testing to impede the spread of illness.
This technique becomes even more effective in public buildings which are often tied directly to large water mains as shown in the depiction below. This technique is known as backflow contamination and can have devastating effects.
If you notice, there is a backflow device in this picture designed to prevent this contamination from spreading. Many water systems do not have these in place and they are easily disabled in systems where they are installed.
If you think this seems a little far-fetched, consider this. In 1993, a potent bacteria known as Cryptosporidium passed through two water treatment facilities in Milwaukee, Wisconsin –undetected by any current equipment.
This outbreak resulted in 403,000 illnesses and 4,400 hospitalizations. The system serves approximately 800,000 people; over half of the population served by this system was affected by this event. Granted, this was not a terrorist attack but the effects on our population are clear.
Imagine a chemical or biological contaminant specifically designed to inflict damage on the US population. It’s safe to say that we could probably add another zero to the figures above (at the very least).
What’s the Solution?
At a government level, it doesn’t appear that there is a very clear answer at this point. The distribution system remains the single biggest weak point and this is unlikely to change any time in the next few decades.
So what can we do?
Unfortunately, public water systems remain one of the “crutches” of modern society. We can grow our own food, create our own power, and generate our own heat, but many “off grid” homes still rely on public water supplies. This is why experts believe that the target of any future terrorist attacks will be the water supply.
At a local level, our best chances of mitigating these risks are through water filtration methods. Even something as simple as gravity fed water filters can greatly reduce the chances of spreading biological or chemical contaminants into our household water supplies.
Although it seems that public water supplies are more likely to be affected by a bioterrorist attack, those of us with wells should still take necessary precautions. Wells can be directly affected by contamination or by contaminated runoff from public systems that seep into the groundwater.