New software tool helps protect nation's drinking water

Knowing the movement of contaminants, what threat they may pose to the public, essential to a quick response

In the United States, hundreds of thousands of bodies of surface water--like lakes, rivers, and reservoirs--help supply the American public with its drinking water. If a chemical or biological contaminant were accidentally or intentionally introduced into a drinking water source, knowing what threat it posed to the public would be essential to the incident commanders charged with mounting an emergency response.

"Incident commanders need timely and accurate information to guide their decisions on deploying first responders to best protect the public," said Douglas Ryan, manager of the Pacific Northwest Research Station's Aquatic and Land Interactions Program. "This information often can be drawn from sources that already exist, but they are scattered and usually not quickly available to on-the-scene commanders in emergencies."

Recognizing the need for a readily available, single source of information, Ryan organized an interagency effort to develop ICWater (pronounced icy water), an incident command tool designed to help protect drinking water in an emergency. He serves as the effort's overall task manager and is based at the Station's Forestry Sciences Laboratory in Olympia, Wash.

ICWater is a computer–based tool that integrates multiple information sources and data from incident commanders at the scene of a surface water contamination. With this information, it quickly produces maps, tables, and charts that tell incident commanders if drinking water intakes are in the contaminant's path, and when and in what concentration the contaminant will reach the intakes. Developing ICWater draws upon the extensive expertise of the USDA Forest Service in water research as well as data sources from several other agencies.

The ICWater command tool is currently used by water utilities and State HAZMAT (hazardous materials) response teams in Oregon and Washington, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the Ohio Valley.

An operational version will be deployed and available for use by first responders nationally by summer 2006.

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In addition to the USDA Forest Service, the Technical Support Working Group, United States Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Defense Threat Reduction Agency have supported this effort.

The PNW Research Station, headquartered in Portland, Ore., generates and communicates scientific knowledge to help people understand and make informed choices about natural resources and the environment. It has 10 laboratories located in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington and about 500 employees. Visit www.fs.fed.us/pnw for more information.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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