There was once a time when brush and small trees surrounded the edges of Manassas’ dam and water treatment plant, located off its Broad Run reservoir. For utility workers, molecules in the water posed the largest threat, not people.
Those days are no more. The shrubbery is gone, lights have been installed, and city employees check water lines and tanks daily for tampering.
Jim Johnston, the city’s water superintendent, believes security is a serious business. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he realized the water department — which serves more than 70,000 people in Manassas, Manassas Park and Prince William County — was now a potential terrorism target.
“I perceived the water system as a military position,” he said. “And I proceeded to make plans to defend it.”
Water systems larger than Manassas’ were required last month to turn in security assessments to the Environmental Protection Agency. Manassas plans to turn its report in coming weeks, months ahead of the Dec. 31 deadline for utilities its size.
Johnston says the study, conducted by Herndon-based EWA Technologies Inc., credits the city for doing many things right. A released excerpt of the report speaks of Manassas taking “positive actions to reduce vulnerabilities or lessen the impact or their exploitation by terrorists.”
Across the country, water systems are rushing to meet security needs. The American Water Works Association is estimating that security measures may cost water systems up to $1.6 billion nationwide.
Water officials are raising questions about how much protection is needed for their treatment plants and water mains. They’re asking if background checks are needed for employees and whether security guards and alarm systems are necessary.
For many, money for such projects has not been easy to come by. At this time, there is no indication water systems will receive a large amount of funds from the federal government, said Andrew Hudson, an AWWA spokesman.
“Funding is going to be the hardest part,” he said. “But the message we get from utilities is that this is important. It’s the right thing to do.”
Already, the largest water company in Pennsylvania –the Pennsylvania-American Water Co. –has asked the state permission to charge customers an extra $14.60 per year to pay for security measures.
In many ways, Manassas’ water system has been lucky, Johnston said. Money for some maintenance projects, such as replacing aging water meters, will be delayed to pay for security measures. Much has been done at little or no expense. “We’ve gotten 90 percent of the work done at 25 percent of the cost,” he said.
Remaining projects will cost about $109,000. Johnston wants surveillance systems and remote devices installed to lessen the need for utility employees to go out on their own to make checks.
Johnston is hoping Manassas might eventually receive some federal or state aid for its water security efforts. But for now, he is forging ahead.
“You can have two responses to something like 9-11,” he said. “You can hold out your hand and ask for money. Or you roll up your sleeves and do it. Not having the money is not a good excuse to allow a breach in your operations.”
Staff writer Chris Newmarker can be reached at (703) 368-3101, Ext. 119.