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Vandalism, a Persistent Threat to Water Utilities, Is Tough to Stop

A little-recognized but common problem, vandalism can put water supplies at risk of contamination. Alarms and a safety-first approach are often the only recourse for water agencies.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
The South Bay Aqueduct Santa Clara Terminal Reservoir, located in Santa Clara, Calif. Water infrastructure such as reservoirs and storage tanks can be the target of vandals, creating a potential public health risk.Florence Law/California Department of Water Resources

Decaying pipes and sprung valves are slowly getting more attention in the water sector. Studies estimate it will cost around $1 trillion to catch up with the infrastructure decay among American water utilities. But the industry faces another threat that’s a lot harder to manage: vandalism.

From simple trespassing to damaging water treatment hardware, vandalism takes many forms. It could be kids looking for a place to swim, or thieves trying to steal copper hardware to turn a quick buck. At its worst, vandalism can even be potentially deadly, such as a troublemaker breaking into a tank to contaminate the water supply.

“Vandalism is a pretty common low-level threat that has the potential to escalate into something more serious,” said Kevin Morley, federal relations manager at the American Water Works Association (AWWA), the world’s largest organization of water supply professionals. “We cannot stop people from attempting bad things.”

One such incident recently raised the specter of contamination for the North Marin Water District in California. Late at night on July 7, someone broke into one of the district’s remote water storage tanks.

The person cut padlocks on a gate surrounding the tank, on a ladder leading up the side of the 500,000-gallon steel tank and then on a hatch at the top of the tank. The intruder hasn’t been caught.

Drew McIntyre, the district’s general manager, said he has no idea why someone tried to access the tank, or if the water was contaminated during the breach.

“In an abundance of caution,” he said, the district isolated the tank from its delivery system, drained the 290,000 gallons of water in the tank, and then disinfected the entire inside of the tank. The process took the district a full week and cost around $8,000, including lost water worth about $1,000.

None of the district’s customers went without water. But about 1,000 customers had their water service shifted to a different tank during the cleaning process.

The district tested the water to look for contaminants, and nothing was found.

But McIntyre noted that all kinds of different tests are available, and the tests that the district did use might not have been the right ones to detect something an intruder put in the water. That’s why the tank was drained and cleaned, he said.

Our No. 1 goal is to protect the public health of our customers,” McIntyre said. “The best way to protect their health is to not rely on numerous tests, and maybe missing something in a test, but just to drain the water.”

In South San Francisco just a few weeks earlier, vandals cut a lock protecting a vent on a water storage tank operated by California Water Service Company. It was unknown if the water had been contaminated, so, as a precaution, some 2,000 customers were told to use only bottled water for drinking and cooking until tests confirmed the water was safe.

Surprisingly, the AWWA keeps no statistics on vandalism. Morley said he’s not aware of any hard data available on the problem.

Similarly, the California Water Resources Control Board and its Division of Drinking Water, which regulates the state’s water utilities, also doesn’t keep statistics on vandalism.

“We don’t have any data on this,” said spokesman George Kostyrko. “We don’t always hear about it first, and it isn’t a reporting requirement.”

Preventing such incidents can be difficult, because many water facilities are located in isolated places out of necessity. Water storage tanks, for instance, are often built on rural hilltops to provide water pressure for homes below. These, along with distribution pipes and valves, are rarely patrolled.

A small plane flies over the 10 million gallon-capacity storage tank at the Edward W. Bailey Water Treatment Plant in eastern Colorado Springs, Colo. Vandals sometimes access such tanks by cutting locks, exposing the public to potential health threats via contamination of the stored water. (Photo by Mark Reis,, The Gazette via AP)

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York in 2001, the United States Environmental Protection Agency directed water utilities to perform “vulnerability assessments.” That involved analyzing terrorism and vandalism risks and how utilities might minimize those risks through surveillance and other security measures.

Compliance was slow, at first, according to a 2003 review by the EPA Office of Inspector General. But more recently, Morley said, the EPA reports 99 percent compliance with the vulnerability assessment requirement.

The assessments have been used to assist utilities in determining what actions provide the greatest opportunity to reduce risk,” said Morley. “So they are useful.”

The AWWA has also developed its own “Roadmap” to help water utilities plan their security measures.

McIntyre said North Marin Water District completed its vulnerability assessment some years ago. To address vandalism risk, the district began using security cameras at some of its facilities. But cameras often produced false alarms, he said.

About three years ago, McIntyre said, the district had a similar breach at one of its 40 water tanks. Cameras weren’t sufficient to prevent the breach or catch the perpetrator, he said, or even to respond rapidly.

This led the district to install intrusion alarms at all its tanks instead, including at the tank that was broken into in July. Cameras are still used at locations with chronic problems, McIntyre said, but intrusion alarms are a lot more dependable. He recommended other water agencies take a similar approach.

“We were able to get up there and isolate the tank within 20 minutes of getting the alarm,” McIntyre said. “They go off when they need to go off, and when the alarm is triggered we know it’s not a false alarm, and we immediately can address the issue.”

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