Federal Water Tap, August 28: Advisory Council Warns of Cyber Threat to Critical Infrastructure

The Rundown

Advisory council again warns that the federal government is not doing enough to prepare for cyberattacks on water and energy systems. The Interior Department receives millions of comments, primarily in support, for its review of national monuments. Energy regulators want more financial data for a proposed Lake Powell water pipeline. The EPA inspector general will investigate whether public water systems notify their customers about contamination above legal limits. And lastly, the EPA extends the public comment period for its proposed repeal of the Obama administration’s Clean Water Act definition and announces a series of teleconferences to gather input about rewriting the rule.

“There is a narrow and fleeting window of opportunity before a watershed, 9/11-level cyberattack to organize effectively and take bold action. We call on the administration to use this moment of foresight to take bold, decisive actions.” — Conclusion from an expert panel’s report on cybersecurity and U.S. infrastructure. The National Infrastructure Advisory Council consults with the Department of Homeland Security and the president on the nation’s energy, water, telecommunications, and other critical systems.

By the Numbers

378,719: Number of public comments received by August 25 on the proposed repeal of the Waters of the United States rule. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

2.8 million: Number of public comments in response to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s task of reviewing national monuments for potential revision or elimination. The comments were “overwhelmingly in favor of maintaining existing monuments,” according to a department summary. The department downplayed that fact, claiming that the response “demonstrated a well-orchestrated national campaign organized by multiple organizations.” It was quite the campaign. An analysis of the first 1.3 million comments found that more than 99 percent were opposed to shrinking or eliminating monuments. That includes strong majorities of commenters (between 72 percent and 98 percent) in the states in which monuments are located. (Interior Department)

News Briefs

FERC: Show Us the Money Numbers
Federal regulators, in an August 11 letter, asked the Utah Division of Water Resources for more financial information about a 139-mile pipeline that would send water from Lake Powell, a large reservoir on the Colorado River, to the state’s southwestern corner.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission asked for data on how the cost of the pipeline would be distributed among water users and for an analysis of the pipeline’s effect on state government finances. The letter also asks for information about impacts to Native American tribes along the pipeline route.

The pipeline, estimated by the state to cost between $1.1 billion and $1.8 billion to construct, is being permitted as a hydropower project because it will generate some electricity as water moves downhill. There is fervent debate within Utah and the Colorado River Basin whether the pipeline is necessary. Washington County, the pipeline’s destination, has some of the highest per capita water use in the state and relatively cheap water rates.

The financial information is due to FERC within 60 days.

Federal Court Hears Las Vegas Pipeline Case
A U.S. district court judge ordered the Bureau of Land Management to amend its environmental review of a proposed 300-mile water pipeline to the nation’s gambling capital, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reports. The pipeline would tap groundwater from four basins in north-central Nevada. The amended review should address the potential damage to wetlands from pumping groundwater, the judge said.

Studies and Reports

Cybersecurity Warning
Congress and federal agencies are not doing enough to prepare for attacks on the computer systems that operate the nation’s energy, water, and telecommunication systems, according to a report from the National Infrastructure Advisory Council.

The draft report, approved at the council’s August 21 meeting, offers 11 recommendations that are directed at specific agencies. The recommendations range from training exercises and private-sector collaboration to declassifying and sharing information about cyber threats. Coordination with the private sector is especially important, the report states, because companies own and operate much of the critical infrastructure.

The final report will be posted once it is approved by President Trump, according to Ginger Norris, the council’s federal liaison.

The report uses attention-grabbing language (a “9/11-level cyberattack”) but the warnings are not new. This is the second time in little more than a year that the council has told federal agencies that the nation’s water and energy systems are vulnerable to cyberattack.

In June 2016, the council noted that virtual intrusions into water utility computers were “no longer hypothetical.” Its report cited instances of hackers meddling with systems that control chemicals used in water treatment.

In context: Water sector prepares for cyberattacks.

In context, part II: Water utility rings up hefty data charges.

Drinking Water Public Notice Investigation
The EPA’s internal watchdog will investigate whether the agency is ensuring that public water systems notify their customers about levels of contamination above legal limits, as is required under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

On the Radar

Extension of WOTUS Repeal Comment Period, Plus Public Meetings
The EPA is extending the public comment period by 30 days, to September 27. The Trump administration is seeking to repeal a definition of the waters protected by the Clean Water Act that was established by the Obama administration.

Submit comments at www.regulations.gov using docket number EPA-HQ-OW-2017-0203.

The Trump administration is also moving ahead with what it calls “step two” in its repeal-replace tactic: writing a new definition. The Army Corps and the EPA will hold 10 teleconferences in September and October to gather input before proposing the rule. Nine of the meetings are directed at specific groups: agriculture, small businesses, environmental groups, mining, etc. The tenth is for the general public.

Submit comments on what the revised definition should be at www.regulations.gov using docket number EPA-HQ-OW-2017-0480. Comments are due by November 28.

Army Corps Extends Water Supply Comment Period
Comments are being accepted through November 16 for an Army Corps rule on the use of its reservoirs for public water supply. Submit comments via WSRULE2016@usace.army.mil with COE-2016-0016 in the subject line.

Federal Water Tap is a weekly digest spotting trends in U.S. government water policy. To get more water news, follow Circle of Blue on Twitter and sign up for our newsletter.