Is Drinking Water a Homeland Security Threat?

In late 2010, the Congressional Research Service provided a report to Congress referencing the variety of security issues that plague the U.S. water infrastructure sector. They assessed damage to or the destruction of the nation’s water supply and water quality infrastructure by terrorist attack or natural disaster could disrupt the delivery of vital human services in this country, threatening public health and the environment, or possibly causing loss of life.

Interest in such problems has increased greatly since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. At present, state, county, and city emergency managers have examined various strategies to implement in case these types of acts were to occur within their localities. Currently, California is four years into a historic drought that has impacted the state on a widespread level. In hopes of helping its large populous, Governor Jerry Brown has implemented $1 billion plan to relieve California’s residents and has proposed fines up to $10,000 for severe water wasters.

Recently, various news media outlets in the San Francisco Bay Area reported that vandals (not terrorists) deflated a rubber dam in Fremont, California last Thursday. This damaged released close to 50 million gallons of drinkable water into the San Francisco Bay. The Alameda County Water District stated the water lost is equivalent to a year’s supply for 500 households and in a time of severe drought, this loss is substantial. Many of these residents are extremely upset and are worried about the potential for the potential additional acts of vandalism (or worse), which could make the current situation even worse and potentially life threatening.

Inflatable Dam Across Alameda Creek Before Its Destruction By Vandals In May 2015 (Alameda County Water District)
Inflatable Dam after Vandals Destroyed it.

The Fremont, California police stated the punctures to the rubber dam were caused by vandals and this event is not considered to be an act of terrorism. The police further elaborated they have some leads pertaining to the identity of these criminals who trespassed into the area early Thursday and destroyed the dam. Alameda Water estimates the dam, which holds water for the Niles Cone Groundwater Basin has around 3 million dollars damage done to it.

Obviously this is not an act of terrorism, but it does pose significant homeland security challenges. As with certain acts of terrorism, we as a nation can provide assistance to the affected areas. Also, we have the military capabilities to capture or destroy these elements. Unfortunately with a drought, there are few if any solutions to this problem. We can’t make it snow or redirect weather fronts to adequately fill our reservoirs and water our various types of vegetation. Recovery in these instances takes years of Mother Nature’s support to overcome these hazards, so when vandals destroy what is directly beneficial to them, it makes no sense and is extremely upsetting to so many people.

Emergency managers are expected to prepare and ensure that vital public resources are kept safe and are brought back up in some capacity in a relatively short period of time. Currently, the prolonged drought in California poses significant infrastructure challenges. A few vandals caused significant damage to a diminishing resource that is essential for all living creatures to survive. What if this had been an act of terror on a greater level? If vandals caused this event, what havoc could a force that is determined to undermine our way of life capable of doing?


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