By Kelly A. Reynolds, MSPH, Ph.D.

Researchers in multifaceted disciplines have shared the long-term goal of developing automated systems for evaluating the quality of drinking water and tracking potential contaminant intrusion events (i.e., possible terrorist attacks on the drinking water distribution system). There are many challenges associated with the development of a tracking system for drinking water contaminants, not the least of which includes identifying what contaminants or specific indicators to look for, how specific contaminants move through distribution networks to expose populations and what course of action should be applied if the bells and whistles start going off. Recently, a new software system, known as ICWater, has been developed to model the fate and transport of toxins introduced into drinking water sources and is being used by several water utilities and hazardous materials response teams in the United States.

The Incident Command Water Tool
Recently, the scientific media published reports of a new software tool that can model the path of a toxic spill anywhere in the waterways of the US. This new tool, known as the Incident Command (IC) Water Tool, was developed by the Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) under the sponsorship of the federal Technical Support Working Group (TSWG) and the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Forest Service and is being distributed by the US Department of Defense.

According to the ICWater information website, the tool is specifically designed to aid incident commanders; i.e., the first responders in an emergency, in the collection of timely and accurate information regarding drinking water contaminant movement in real time. Although the developers caution that the tool is not a monitoring system or a detection instrument, it does provide a means to rapidly integrate multiple information sources and data from a contamination event at a specific source water site to assess the potential public health risk of exposure. The computer-based tool reportedly provides a quantitative analysis of how more than 300 potential water contaminants, including microbial pathogens, toxic chemicals and radioactive substances, would be dispersed in the drinking water distribution network.

Drawing from an established database
Using global information systems (GIS) and a variety of supporting databases, including US EPA Public Water Supply intake data and Toxic Chemical Release data, National Inventory of Dams from the US Army Corps of Engineers, US Geological Survey (USGS) water resources data (National Water Information System), reservoir characteristics data, RiverSpill models, National Hydrography dataset, US Census data and the National Pipeline Mapping System, to name a few, ICWater produces summaries of current conditions and forecasts of future consequences of terrorist acts or other contamination events on public water supplies.

Some of the considerations the developers of the ICWater point out as important parameters to define in their model are real-time flow and velocity factors of contaminants in water where contaminant transport is a factor of the contaminant type (biological, radiological or chemical), conditions of contaminant release (continuous versus finite) and the transport process (impacted by advection, dispersion and decay parameters).

Tools such as the ICWater Tool are important aspects of public health risk assessment and emergency preparedness. Developing a means to monitor drinking water quality is only one step toward public health protection. Being able to functionalize a large-scale response, should monitoring sensors reveal a problem, is essential to minimize the impact of an intrusion event. The US Forest Service provides an established link to trained incident commanders, already skilled in responding to wildland fires and other major disaster response events.
The software appears to be extremely user-friendly. Once installed, clicking on the application icon brings up the Data Loader interface where one can enter information related to a specific site, represented by state, county or hydrological region (a link is given to obtain this information from USGS) and allows additional information input such as longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates and the target street address. This information is used to produce an interactive map of the region. There are many scenario variations that can then be manipulated in the program, including identification of critical impact sites (i.e., concentrated population sites such as area schools) and downstream flow conditions related to specific site characteristics. Fate and transport scenarios can be performed for agents downstream from the point of an intentional injection site or hazardous waste spill.

In addition to impact analysis, the software provides treatment options and tolerance levels of certain contaminants to conventional treatments (i.e., chlorine resistance) relative to recommended exposure guidelines (i.e., no observed adverse effect levels {NOELs}) and provides a ranking of the contaminants stability in water and threat level followed by an extensive list of scientific literature that the database is based on.

Information needs
According to information located in the technical brief found at the ICWater website, the motivation for the development of the Incident Command Tool for protecting drinking water was the identification of drinking water as a high priority for protection against terrorist attacks in the US (USDA Forest Service, US EPA, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Technical Support Working Group and Defense Threat Reduction Agency). The vast network of water systems in the US (180,000 water systems serving more than 250 million persons and processing approximately 16 trillion gallons of water each year through a network of 880,000 miles of distribution piping) is a recognized vulnerability in the interest of public health protection. The developers of ICWater state that “the nation has two important ways to protect drinking water safety: upgrade infrastructure to physically protect water supplies and upgrade preparedness to take timely and effective action to minimize the consequences to the public should an attack occur.” Risk reduction through the use of an integrated, GIS-referenced system provides some of the tools necessary for disaster preparedness; however, the POU industry understands that a third option is protection of consumers directly at the tap. Multi-barrier POU systems are available that can remove many of the contaminants of concern in the distribution system and offers the public a means to take charge of their own potential risks.


  1. Science Daily, December 1, 2006; Is Your Drinking Water Contaminated?
  2. Bahadur, R., Samuels, W.B and Pickus, J. 2003. Case study for a distribution system emergency response tool, American Water Works Association Research Foundation Report No. 2922, Denver, Colo., 50p.
  3. Deininger, R. A. and Meier, P. G., 2000. Sabotage of public water supply systems, in Security of Public Water Supplies, R. A. Deininger (ed.), NATO Science Series, Volume 66, Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  4. Ryan, Doug. Incident Command Tool for Protecting Drinking Water (ICWater).
  5. Rycus, M. J. and Snyder, J.C., 2001. Protection of Public Water Systems: Emergency Response and Water System Security in Germany, Israel and Japan and Vulnerability of Public Water System Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) Systems, prepared for the President’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection by The Studies in Urban Security Group (SUSG).
  6. Samuels, W.B., Bahadur, R., Pickus, J. Amstutz, D. and Ryan, D. 2004, Development of the Incident Command Information Tool (ICIT) for Drinking Water Protection, Proceedings, Geographic Information Systems and Water Resources III, American Water Resources Conference, May 17–19, 2004, Nashville, Tenn.
  7. Samuels, W.B., Bahadur, R., Amstutz, D.E., Pickus, J. and Grayman, W. 2002, RiverSpill: A GIS-Based Real Time Transport Model for Source Water Protection, Proceedings, Watershed 2002, February 24–27, 2002, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

About the author
Dr. Kelly A. Reynolds is an associate professor at the University of Arizona College of Public Health. She holds a Master of Science Degree in public health (MSPH) from the University of South Florida and a doctorate in microbiology from the University ofArizona. Reynolds has been a member of the WC&P Technical Review Committee since1997. She can be reached via email at


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