Water, Electricity, & Communication: The Interdependent Infrastructures

John Organek, Water Sector Coordinator, EIS Council

Water Power

Water is vital to sustaining life, and electricity and communications are vital to sustaining water. These three infrastructures are highly interdependent and play a vital role in sustaining societies. But let’s focus on water and the role that both communications and electricity play in sustaining the water sector’s mission on behalf of society.

Many utilities, governments, communities, and families have experienced the loss of electricity, often for extended periods of time, but few have experienced the loss of communications that took place, for example, in New York City during the Northeast Blackout in 2003, or in Puerto Rico in 2017, following Hurricane Maria. Water systems must have assured communications to coordinate sysops across their extensive footprint. And, they need to have a better means than that which one water plant was forced to use following Hurricane Maria – runners between the treatment plant and storage facility to coordinate pumping operations supported by emergency power units.

Unless planned for a Black Sky event, communications will fail, thereby, preventing the execution of internal operations and the necessary coordination with the supporting electric utility, fuel and chemical suppliers, leaders of the supported community, and the public.

Situation awareness, operational control, and coordination will atrophy first and then die. Manual operations – the fallback to loss of SCADA and ICS, simply cannot work, leading to mission failure and loss of vital water services required to provide water for drinking and for firefighting. Communications would be especially vital to successfully black start a shut-down grid, where coordination between the water utility and electric utility must be orchestrated carefully to ensure that the loads that the water utility provides enable the electric utility to flourish and maintain the quality of service that the large water sector electrical machines require to safely operate.

As we have moved towards a highly electric world we have also become pervasively and heavily dependent on communications capabilities – primarily cell phones – to run our business and accomplish our mission. And, while utilities maintain radios, these radios have taken a backup role to cell phones. As a result, utilities are often negligent in training personnel on their use and in maintaining the practices and techniques necessary to operate solely on a radio-based network.

A sound and complete Communications Annex to Emergency Response Plans should assume a total loss of cell service and address the requirements for running a radio-based network, internally and with other stakeholders. Frequent radio training exercises should be conducted to improve operational capabilities and to identify and address issues such as frequencies for communicating with the supporting electric utility, suppliers, community leaders, and the public.

Like electricity, the Water Sector is vitally dependent on communications to continue its mission on behalf of the communities and people it serves.


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