Drinking water utilities are at a critical and unfortunate crossroads – the economy is in the toilet and borrowing money is harder than ever.  Less cash means having to cut back and when your product is known as the ‘essence of life,’ that isn’t easy.

So here’s the multi billion-dollar question: Should water utilities spend money upgrading security or replacing aging infrastructure?

It’s not a sexy set of choices, but as someone who has spent their life studying the security of critical infrastructure, particularly as it exists within the water sector, it is important (unless of course, you’re the only person on this planet who can live without water).

Investing in guns, guards and gates is always nice because it helps mitigate the vulnerabilities that terrorists, vandals, or drunken idiots might intentionally or unintentionally exploit.  You know, little things like poisoning the water supply or blowing up hazardous chemicals – basically the stuff that can shutdown, sicken or wipe out an entire community.

On the other hand, investing in aging infrastructure is a good idea too, particularly since the pipes in your local distribution system are older than the dirt they’re buried in.  Seriously, they’re ticking time bombs.  They will leak, break, or corrode.  When they do, you can expect flooded roads, water contamination issues, and damaged or destroyed electrical wires and fiber optic cables.  Most people have no idea just how ancient their local water distribution systems really are.  Let’s put it to you this way, when that pipe was laid Elvis wasn’t fat, John McCain hadn’t joined the Navy, and Hugh Hefner was in a monogamous relationship.

From a cost analysis perspective, it’s tough to make a fair argument regarding where and how utilities should spend their very limited dollars.  For every $1 that systems spend replacing pipes before they burst, they’ll spend $9 on the response and recovery effort needed to clean up after a major break.  Security investments can’t be quantified the same way.  Who knows what the ROI is on a fence, a lock, or a guard?  Maybe they prevented something bad from happening or maybe they didn’t.  It’s nearly impossible to say.

So pick your poison and drink up or keep your fingers crossed that Congress will take the following steps to help resolve this dilemma:

1.    Run a ‘security enhancement’ grant program through DHS that only water systems can draw from.  DHS funds trickle down to guns, fire hoses and radios but not to water utilities.  Without a water-specific grant pool, utilities will continue to be left high and dry.

2.    How about a bailout?  Just kidding, sort of…  President-elect Obama has stated that he wants to renew jobs and invest in our future by funding infrastructure investment projects at water utilities.  Excellent!  Go for it Mr. President-elect.  I have no doubts you’ll feel good about it each and every night as you brush your teeth and think about where that water came from.

My advice to Congress and the new Administration: be innovative and think long-term.  Don’t just set aside enough money to acknowledge that the problem exists, put us on the investment path toward resolving the issue – there’s a difference.

L. Vance Taylor has worked to advance the mission of homeland security on Capitol Hill and in the private sector. One of only approximately 250 people in the nation with a Master’s degree in Homeland Security, Mr. Taylor combines specialized educational training with real-world experience to leverage successful outcomes for clients and stakeholders. Read More