Efforts Underway to Prevent Terrorist Attacks on Arizona Water Supply

March 07, 2013

Security at airports and other public places has been stepped up in Arizona to guard against terrorist attacks. 

And now, officials are updating efforts to protect the state’s water supplies from sabotage or contamination by terrorist groups.

Imagine going to your kitchen sink and a foul odor comes from the spigot as you pour a glass of water.  Maybe it’s contaminated with chemicals or deadly bacteria.  It could happen.  But, officials who manage Arizona’s water supplies said they’re using the latest technology and plain old intuition to keep the water safe:  “I would not be concerned about terrorism  or an attack on  the water system  but we can never say 100% for sure.”

Canal The Western Canal, an SRP canal in the East Valley. (Photo by Carol Harvey - KJZZ)

That’s Mitch Basefsky, a spokesman with Central Arizona Project.  He was at a University of Arizona conference this week to address water security.  CAP manages the massive canal system that brings water from the Colorado River to Maricopa, Pinal and Pima counties.  That’s more than five-million people living in the desert who rely on water to survive:  “CAP actually has a very sophisticated security system.  We have our own officer force or our own agents who are constantly going up and down the canal, the 336 miles of canal,  we have alarms on all of our facilities…we have cameras throughout the system.”

And, CAP works with the U-S Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies to monitor water safety in Arizona.  Together they watch canals, reservoirs and dams for suspicious activity.  Basefsky said the CAP is completely surrounded by a fence but he acknowledged it could be ripped open before authorities arrive:  “If we find that somebody has broken in, say a dump truck has broken in… and has backed up to the canal…we have a way of blocking off or isolating  various sections of the canal so that water is trapped  between two blocks…two big steel blocks."

Here’s a good example of how devastating a CAP breach could be. 

Last year, in western Arizona its canal burst sending more than 130-million gallons of water onto the desert floor.

The safety of Arizona’s canals is at stake and while the CAP is fenced, the Salt River Project canals that crisscross the Phoenix area are located in wide open spaces without any barriers.  But, SRP has other concerns about water security according to David Roberts, a Water Resources Manager with SRP:  “I think from what we’ve learned over the years its  much better to be proactive about the challenges we have with cyber security  and terrorism on our water supply system."

Roberts said he fears hackers could compromise SRP’s computer network that controls water flow:  “There are a number of water treatment plants  off of our canal system in the Phoenix area and we work with the cities to make sure that we’re  monitoring those water supplies and also monitoring the  IT systems that monitor those as well.”

The town of Marana is one of the communities near Tucson working with SRP to keep the water safe.  John Kmiec is Marana’s Utilities Director. 

He said under state law every Arizona town and city is required to install a backflow protection system to keep water supplies free from contamination:  “Backflow protection is when you have a user like a business or a property that may pose a risk of accidentally or intentionally  putting contaminated water back into the potable water supply.   This device and this program helps prevent any of those instances from occurring."

Despite a lot of preparation, people who manage one of Arizona’s most precious resources said water security is still an issue that keeps them awake at night.  

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