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Climate change and cyberattacks are emerging as major concerns of municipalities around the country and the Phoenix is no exception. 

Last week, the possible impact of both on water treatment facilities was discussed at a meeting of the Water/Wastewater Rate Advisory Committee, an advisory board for the Phoenix Water Services Department.

Members met to discuss the future of water treatment facilities, which could be harmed by severe weather conditions and outdated hardware vulnerable to hackers. 

“It’s foolish not to take care of the things that need to be taken care of,” committee Chairman Richard Rea said. 

The committee oversees water treatment services for over 2.5 million people in Phoenix, Glendale, Mesa, Scottsdale and Tempe. 

The water system includes nearly 5,000 miles of water lines connected to water treatment sites. 

Severe weather can cause power outages and shut down treatment sites requiring large amounts of electricity to move clean water through the system and to filter wastewater. 

 “As climate is changing, there’s more fluctuations in the weather,” said Darlene Helm, Phoenix deputy director of water engineering. “We’ve seen more severe storms and it’s a concern.” 

It cost about $23.5 million for electricity between 2018 and 2019 to pump and filter water. 

“The average home uses 900-kilowatt hours per month,” Helm said. “In a month, we [could] basically power 22-thousand homes with the amount of energy we’re using.”

 The committee is preparing for future power outages caused by climate change that could affect Valley residents’ access to clean water. 

 “We are trying to design [backup power] for 48 hours on the average day of the hottest month,” Water Services Department Director Kathryn Sorensen said.

In recent years, water treatment sites have dealt with “major power outages” linked to weather and power plant meltdowns, according to Helm.

For example, a Salt River Project transformer fire in 2015 caused a power outage at water treatment sites. 

Across the state, “major storms” and cold fronts have caused outages at power plants serving treatment sites – resulting in unexpected blackouts committee members and water service operatives “can’t control at all” and can last “a few minutes or several hours,” according to Helm.

In 2015, a study of the power grid at water treatment sites prompted the Phoenix Water Services Department to launch a 10-year, $88 million project to address technology improvements and back-up power concerns.

“And there’s always the issue of a cyberattack on the power system,” Helm said. “So, we need to be prepared.” 

 The department’s cyber-control network is protected by a series of firewalls that protect it from unauthorized users, officials said.     

It would be “very difficult” for hackers to infiltrate the secured communication network that governs the water treatment sites across the Valley, according to Lead Information Technology Specialist Samantha Thompson.

But a cyberattack is still possible, according to Rea, who said:

“The reality is anybody could make one of those radios that will do exactly that and if they wanted to, get into the system.” 

Access to the network would allow a hacker to control pumps and power in and out of treatment sites. However, there are physical controls at sites designed to “shut down” compromised communication lines. 

Will there ever be a time in which the control networks will be completely secure from hackers?

“I think that we could replace all the equipment and I will never be 100 percent comfortable,” Thompson said. “Because there is always that concern.” 

There has not been a cyberattack on any water treatment site in Arizona. 

The committee will meet again on March 17.

“One of the great frustrations that I personally have is that nobody’s paying any attention to the realities,” Rea said. “And if you hide it, it never goes away, it just gets worse and worse and worse. It’s kind of like a death spiral.”