Assessing the Risk to Critical Water Infrastructure

Justin Stark, Water/Wastewater

February 14, 2020

Public water systems in Nebraska came under threat a year ago as multiple communities experienced unprecedented flooding on a massive scale.

Runoff fueled by heavy rain, above-average snowmelt, and frozen soil caused $2.6 billion in damage, ranking as one of the costliest inland floods the nation has ever experienced. High water imperiled, impaired, and even shut down water systems.

The list of other potential threats to water infrastructure includes hurricanes, droughts, tornadoes, earthquakes, and wildfires. Malevolent threats include terrorism, cyberattacks, or workplace violence.

America’s Water Infrastructure Act (AWIA) of 2018 requires that community water systems serving populations above 3,300 evaluate potential risks, threats, vulnerabilities, and consequences by completing risk and resilience assessments. Findings in the assessment are to be used to guide an update of the water system’s emergency response plan.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established the following deadlines to complete the risk and resilience assessments:

  • March 31, 2020 for systems serving 100,000 or more
  • Dec. 31, 2020 for systems serving between 50,000 to 99,999
  • June 30, 2021 for systems serving between 3,301 and 49,999

Updated emergency response plans are due six months after the risk assessment certification is submitted to the EPA.

The 2018 law does not spell out what standards, methods, or tools should be used to complete the assessments and plans. The EPA, however, does recommend resources such as the American Water Works Association (AWWA) J100-10 Risk and Resilience Management of Water and Wastewater Systems.

At Olsson, we’ve long helped communities complete master plans and conduct risk assessments. In addition, we know the AWWA standards and have completed EPA training sessions on what’s required under federal law.  

The assessment process involves assembling the best available data to predict the likelihood of hazards while identifying which assets are the most critical to protect. A proper assessment also includes an analysis of potential consequences to at-risk communities and identifies a range of countermeasures that system managers can employ to reduce risk and improve resilience.

A sound practice involves making sure the risk assessment is evaluated by a cross-functional team of individuals with diverse professional backgrounds and relevant expertise. Olsson can serve in this role, which is particularly valuable for smaller-population communities.

Regardless of size, all government agencies face budgetary pressures. Brandon Wales, former director of the Office of Cyber Infrastructure Analysis for the Department of Homeland Security, addressed this reality in offering guidance to those on the front lines of protecting critical infrastructure. He argued a risk-informed approach to infrastructure security helps policy makers answer the question, “How do we use limited resources to better protect our country and help it respond to incidents?”

Another potential advantage could emerge for communities seeking funding assistance to help defray costs associated with better securing their water systems. Municipalities that complete assessments and planning early could better position themselves to obtain federal grants.

The experience of officials in Plattsmouth, Nebraska, is insightful. In 2011, sustained flooding on the Missouri River impacted the city’s water system and subsequently led to an extensive risk evaluation and planning process. Then last March, the system came under assault again as the river rose 24 feet in 24 hours, according to City Administrator Erv Portis.

Although risk assessment could not account for the full magnitude of the 2019 catastrophe, the earlier planning was still valuable to Plattsmouth, he said. Officials have been able to move forward thanks to plans already in place.

“We got through this crisis and we didn’t have to rebuild our risk assessment,” Erv said. “We didn’t have to waste three to five years trying to determine what our next steps are.”

Completing a risk assessment can be a complex undertaking for any public water agency, but a systematic, thoughtful approach can create a lasting asset for your community.

For more information, reach Justin at 402.458.5697 or