Drinking water plants can be a tempting target for anyone hoping to create havoc in a community. This led the American Water Works Association (AWWA) to hold its third Water Security Congress in Oklahoma City, the community which was about to mark the 10th anniversary of the nation's worst act of domestic terrorism.

"What we hope to do," J. Alan Roberson of AWWA says," is to provide an emotional connection for members, so they can understand the importance of what we do."

The Association was established nearly 125 years ago as a non-profit scientific and educational organization dedicated to ensuring safe drinking water. Since then, its mission has evolved.

"Years ago, in fact, when I took this job, a lot of my job was working with the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) on drinking water standards, what those standards ought to be," Mr. Roberson says. "In the last four years, in addition to doing that, water security has become a more important issue."

At this year's gathering in Oklahoma City, water utility designers, engineers and regulators met with security experts to explore how their different specialties can complement each other to improve water security.

"Now, we're working on trying to integrate security into the design of new water plants," Mr. Roberson says. "We are also trying to retrofit the existing water plants. A lot of utilities are looking for low cost or no-cost procedures they can do to improve water security. That can be something like if they have a chemical delivery or something delivered to their plants, they require their suppliers to call a day before, give the truck driver's name and driver's license number. So when the truck shows up the next day they can ensure getting the appropriate supply delivered to their water plant. That's nearly a no-cost security improvement. Things like that can make a big difference."

So can getting the local community involved. "One thing we're trying to promote is to get the consumers that live near a water facility to serve as a second set of eyes for the utility," Mr. Roberson says. He points to the Water Neighbors Program, introduced by a local water utility in Texas.

"They go out to the neighbors that surround the facilities and just talk to them one on one and give them a phone number to call," Mr. Roberson says. "If you live near a water plant or a ground storage tank and see something that's a little bit unusual, you should call the utility to report this."

J. Alan Roberson says advances in technology have made surveillance of water treatment and purification plants more efficient.

"We're taking advantage of a lot of the physical security technologies that have been developed for things like banks and casinos," Mr. Roberson says. "There is a lot of change in the closed-circuit TV cameras, where they've gone from analogue to digital."

Other technologies were also showcased at the conference. Dan Kroll, Chief Scientist of the Hach Company's Homeland Security Technologies Division, demonstrated a new product that instantly detects the presence of contaminants or poisons in the water.

"We have our Water Distribution Monitoring Panel that is actually installed up in the distribution system," Mr. Koll says. "It collects data for various water quality parameters that the industry used to use. We have what we call the Event Monitor that takes that data and continually analyses it and tells you if something out of the ordinary has occurred. It sets off a warning to the distribution system."

Most experts consider the likelihood of a successful terrorist attack on America's water supply to be small. Nevertheless, they take any potential threat very seriously, and more than 100 water professionals recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to urge members of Congress to address critical drinking water safety issues.