The President’s National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC) made a broad call Monday for the creation of a National Water Strategy to ensure the nation can deliver sustainable critical infrastructure systems that are responsive to cyber threats.

In a draft document approved on Aug. 28, the NIAC is calling for the creation of a Department of Water or an equivalent cabinet-level agency to design and implement a strategy that addresses the looming water crisis and cybersecurity threats to the critical infrastructure sector.

“The NIAC concludes that successful mitigation of the risks water crises presents requires a coordinated effort among owners, operators, and local, Federal, and state government. The response must be nuanced, timely and intent on delivering results that strengthen the security and resilience of our nation’s critical infrastructure,” the report notes.

The council – which is comprised of a 30 executives and leaders from the public and private sector to advise the president on infrastructure risks – recommends that the administration create either a Department of Water or a cabinet-level equivalent.

The report highlights that there are seven executive agencies and three independent Federal agencies with water-related oversight, although that number is not exhaustive. The NIAC’s call for a National Water Strategy would enable a level of coordination between all the various organizations.

“This fragmentation of responsibility at the federal level makes it difficult to ascertain the country’s water needs and strategically prepare the nation for a water-secure future,” the report notes.

A Department of Water, the report notes, would be similar to the Department of Energy or Transportation – two separate Federal agencies that oversee critical infrastructure on a national level.

The creation of a new department would include making appropriate budget requirements and priorities needed to increase the resilience of water from physical and cyber threats, the report says.

Additionally, NIAC is calling for the new department to develop a research and development program for cybersecurity and artificial intelligence within the water sector.

The report notes a general lack of resources for water sector advances currently and says an expected overhaul of long-ignored infrastructure maintenance may mean that cybersecurity upgrades will face funding difficulties.

“Decades of chronic underfunding and underinvestment have impacted the condition, reliability, and resiliency of the nation’s critical water infrastructure. The great majority of Americans have the benefit of clean, inexpensive water on demand. But most of our water supply infrastructure is at or nearing the end of its design life. Extreme weather events prompt more frequent boil orders due to failure of stressed aged water infrastructure,” the report notes.

For instance, one such major issue is the lack of a strong workforce in the sector. The report notes that utilities are facing trouble finding and retaining workers – particularly in IT fields.

“Water utilities face challenges in recruiting, training, and retaining their workers. About one-third of the current water sector workforce will be eligible to retire in the next ten years. Technologies used in the water sector are becoming more advanced. New water quality regulations such as the limits on forever chemicals and threats such as cybersecurity compromises will require a more specialized workforce,” the report reads.

“Without additional investment in technologies routinely employed in other infrastructure and employees, water utilities will be hard pressed to find the skilled employees needed to meet their cybersecurity needs, additionally utilities must protect customer data and maintain secure control of all processes within their systems. This problem is exacerbated for the public sector, which must compete for talent with the private sector,” the report notes.

A department that has a core function of addressing the water critical infrastructure sector must work to address all of these issues – first creating and implementing both a near-term and a long-term national strategic plan for water infrastructure.

The report concludes, “A regularly updated national water strategy would identify challenges to the nation’s water assets, unify the efforts of all Federal agencies, and partner with state, tribal, and local governments so that the national water resources can provide for the country’s needs today and in the future by developing required goals and measures while balancing the competing priorities and interests of other sectors.”

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Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.