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A Primer on the National Plan for the Protection of Critical Water Infrastructure

Dale Wuokko, P.E.

Critical infrastructure includes systems and assets, whether physical or virtual, so vital to the United States (U.S.) that the incapacity or destruction of such systems and assets would have a debilitating impact on national security, public health or safety, or any combination of those matters. Critical infrastructure is addressed, in part, by various engineering disciplines, including civil, electrical, mechanical, industrial, hydrological, environmental, computer, and others. Critical infrastructure includes drinking water and wastewater treatment systems. In the U.S. there are more than 153,000 public water systems and more than 16,300 publicly owned wastewater treatment systems. The security and protection of drinking water and wastewater treatment systems (collectively known as critical water infrastructure) are vital to the population of the U.S. and its economy. Safe drinking water is a lifeline infrastructure and is a prerequisite for protecting public health and human activity, and properly treated wastewater is vital for preventing disease and protecting the environment. Critical services such as firefighting and health care (for example, hospitals) and other dependent and interdependent sectors, such as energy, transportation, food and agriculture, would also suffer damaging effects from the loss of potable water or properly treated wastewater.

The risk environment affecting critical water infrastructure is complex and uncertain with threats, vulnerabilities, and consequences having escalated over the last 20 years. Critical water infrastructure has long been subject to risks associated with physical threats and natural disasters. For example, the effects of extreme weather pose a significant risk to critical water infrastructure. In 2012, as a result of Superstorm Sandy, an estimated 11 billion gallons of untreated and partially treated sewage flowed into rivers, bays, canals, and in some cases, city streets, largely as a result of record storm-surge flooding that swamped major sewage treatment facilities in the eight hardest hit states. In addition to sewage overflows, Superstorm Sandy severely damaged numerous treatment plants and pumping stations. Damage to several treatment plants allowed largely untreated sewage to flow into local waterways for weeks, and in some cases, even months after the storm. In some cases, the storm surge simply flooded treatment plants and pumping stations, while in other cases a combination of electric power outages and flood conditions shut down facilities or caused major diversions of sewage into receiving waters. Without electricity, drinking water pumps and wastewater treatment plants could not operate. Flood waters overloading the sewage system contaminated flooded areas. The lack of clean drinking water and wastewater treatment created conditions for the potential spread of communicable diseases, such as cholera, E. coli and noroviruses.

As another example of environmental risk, spring flooding can be a concern for water and wastewater systems critical infrastructure. In March 2019, as a result of historical flooding along the Missouri River, water treatment facilities and other critical infrastructure along the river were impaired. At Plattsmouth, Nebraska, a water and wastewater treatment plant was inundated by rising flood waters and was shut down. A broken levee caused one of Omaha, Nebraskaís two major wastewater treatment plants to flood and be taken offline. On average, that plant treated 65 million gallons and as much as two-thirds of the metro areaís sewage each day, which was instead released into the Missouri River without treatment while the plant was offline. In Leavenworth, Kansas, wastewater treatment pumps were submerged and inoperable. Testing at the KC Water utility, which serves 170,000 customers with water withdrawn from the river, showed excessive levels of turbidity, a concern because the fine particles can carry bacteria, viruses and parasites, including Cryptosporidium.

The critical water sector is vulnerable to a variety of attacks, for example, through contamination with deadly agents, physical attacks (such as through the release of toxic gaseous chemicals) and cyberattacks. If these attacks were successful, the result could be significant illness, casualties, or a denial of critical water service that could also affect public health and safety. In 2011, a lone water treatment plant employee manually shut down operating systems at a wastewater utility in Mesa, Arizona, attempting to cause a sewage backup to damage equipment and create a buildup of methane gas. Automatic safety features prevented the methane buildup and alerted authorities who apprehended the employee without incident.

Critical water infrastructure is increasingly exposed to cyber risks due to the integration of information and communication technologies with critical infrastructure operations, and adversaries world-wide focused on exploiting cyber vulnerabilities. In 2000, a former employee of a Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) software vendor who had been rejected for a position at an Australian sewage plant hacked into the plantís computer system. He altered electronic data for certain sewage pumping stations causing malfunctions in their operations and ultimately releasing about 264,000 gallons of raw sewage into nearby rivers and parks. In 2011, a perpetrator hacked into a water plant outside of Houston, Texas utilizing a default password the perpetrator simply found in a standard user manual. As another example, in 2011, it was reported that hackers destroyed an active water pump used by a U.S. water utility after remotely gaining access to the Industrial Control System (ICS) used to operate its machinery after the hackers had penetrated the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition makerís software used by the utility and stole user names and passwords belonging to the manufacturer's customers. Reportedly, the water pump was remotely turned on and off until its motor burned out. As yet another example, in 2015 an unnamed water treatment plant experienced a cyberattack when cyber intruders managed to remotely manipulate the amount of chemicals that went into the water supply and adversely impact water treatment and production capabilities such that the recovery time to replenish water supplies was increased.

This course is a primer on the U.S. National Infrastructure Protection Plan for the protection of critical water infrastructure.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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