The nation's water utilities are preparing to defend themselves against possible terrorist attacks on pumping stations and pipes that serve its cities and suburbs. The effort, water officials tell TIME, comes after the discovery of documents in Afghanistan that indicate al-Qaeda terrorists have been investigating ways to disrupt the U.S. water supply on a massive scale. An FBI warning was confirmed last week by Tom Curtis, an executive of the American Water Works Association, whose member utilities supply water to 80% of the U.S. population. He says that while no specific plans to attack a water system have been found, al-Qaeda strategists were reported to have acquired "manuals on how water treatment works and how utilities operate--materials that could be used to plan an attack."
The water industry is now hastily examining the places it might be vulnerable. Captured terrorist suspects in Pakistan told their interrogators that al-Qaeda was dabbling with such toxins as cyanide and botulinum. But poisoning reservoirs isn't considered a realistic threat, since it would take truckloads of toxins to contaminate a typical reservoir, and any biological agents would be destroyed during purification. Considered far likelier is a truck bomb or other explosive device set off beneath a pumping station. "For instance," says Curtis, "one city has six giant pumps, and they're all in one building. If you crashed an airplane into that building or blew it up, it would cause half a million people to lose their water supply almost instantly." Pumps of this size must be custom-built and can take as long as 18 months to replace.
Other vulnerable points are intake pipes and large exposed mains that can be severed with a few sticks of dynamite. Water-security officials are envisioning even more nightmarish scenarios, such as an attack on a municipal water-distribution system just as fires are set around the city. "If you had no water at all in your community, it would be a tinderbox," says Curtis.
The water utilities are using such frightening possibilities to engage in an old Washington tradition: lobbying for more money. Local waterworks executives have been wandering Capitol Hill seeking a bigger piece of the pending federal Homeland Security budget. The Bush Administration wants to spend $16 million on protecting the water supply, but the industry estimates it will cost several billion dollars to bury exposed mains and harden security around pumping stations, intake pipes and other critical parts of water-distribution systems. Fire fighters and other emergency units are receiving plenty of attention and money, Curtis points out. "But what happens when the fire fighters pull up in their new trucks and night-vision goggles and they hook up to the fire hydrant and it's dry?"
--By Elaine Shannon