In response to a recent DHS report citing concerns about the ability of insiders to cause significant damage at water utilities, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is set to introduce legislation that would mandate FBI background checks for employees at drinking water and wastewater plants.
While I understand, and can appreciate, Senator Schumer’s logic – after all, screening/vetting individuals with access to sensitive or critical areas, chemicals, etc. isn’t exactly a radical idea – I think Congress would be wise to hit the “pause” button before introducing new regulatory mandates so it can reexamine our current national approach to addressing water security.
For years, Congress has introduced, debated and sometimes even passed water security-related legislation mandating systems to conduct vulnerability assessments, develop emergency response plans, evaluate disinfection methods to replace certain chemical processes, conduct background checks on employees, etc.
Congress’ justification for doing so has been that water services are essential to America’s economic vitality and public health. Unfortunately, Congress only seems to hold that statement as true when proposing/passing measures that place bureaucratic and financial burdens on owner and operators.
When it comes to helping systems maintain, protect and ensure the continued operation of water services by providing technical training and assistance programs or replacing aging infrastructure, the importance of water services slides down Congress’ funding priority scale.
What good does conducting FBI screening on employees, adopting new treatment methods or doing vulnerability assessments do if utilities aren’t provided with the resources they need to train their operators? Similarly, what good does mandating emergency response plans do if community distribution systems rupture due to age and water delivery ceases to be possible?
Congress needs to understand and accept that water security consists of more than background checks and changes in processes. To secure the water sector, legislators need to invest in and create policies that ensure the safety, continued operation and resilience of our nation’s drinking water and wastewater systems.
It’s a tough pill to swallow. I suggest chasing it down with a tall glass of water.