Water Utility Preparedness

By Lauren Wisniewski

During National Preparedness Month, many of us hear about the importance of preparing for disasters. Hopefully, this prompts us to make sure we have enough food, water, and supplies to keep our families safe for at least three days.

In my water security work, I’ve learned that drinking water and wastewater utilities also need to prepare for emergencies. Water utilities are vulnerable to a range of threats including hurricanes, aging infrastructure, and other natural and man-made disasters. Since most of us rely on water utilities to provide drinking water and sanitation, water utility preparedness can greatly impact how quickly our communities can recover from an emergency.

Just as there are many things we can do to minimize potential impacts of emergencies on our families, there are numerous steps utilities can take to increase their preparedness. The Key Features of an Active and Effective Protective Program describes 10 basic elements of a protective program that can help drinking water and wastewater utilities enhance their ability to prevent, detect, respond to, mitigate, and recover from adverse events. For example, utilities can prepare and test emergency response plans, develop internal and external communication strategies, and partner with first responders and other utilities.

I’ve had the opportunity to learn about ways utilities have increased their preparedness. One medium-sized Mid-Atlantic drinking water utility assessed critical points of failure and provided redundancy in the system for those points. This utility also signed an agreement with an adjacent county to provide water and emergency assistance for drinking water and wastewater. Another utility, the Pima County Regional Wastewater Reclamation Department (RWRD) in Arizona, developed a continuity of operations plan (COOP) in 2009 to prepare for the then-impending threat of a pandemic flu outbreak. The COOP requirements include annual readiness training. Pima County RWRD includes external partners in this annual training, which has strengthened its partnerships with other organizations.

Water utility preparedness can reduce the risks to public health and the economic and psychological consequences of water service interruptions. However, as individuals and families, we must also recognize the possibility that we may be without essential services such as water after an emergency and plan accordingly. Are you prepared?

About the author: Lauren Wisniewski has worked at EPA since 2002 and currently works in the Water Security Division. She has an undergraduate degree in Civil Engineering from Duke University and a Masters of Public Health from George Washington University.