Abstract Accurate detection and identification of natural or intentional contamination events in a drinking water pipe is critical to drinking water supply security and health risk management. To use conventional water quality sensors for the purpose, we have explored a real-time event adaptive detection, identification and warning (READiw) methodology and examined it using pilot-scale pipe flow experiments of 11 chemical and biological contaminants each at three concentration levels. The tested contaminants include pesticide and herbicides (aldicarb, glyphosate and dicamba), alkaloids (nicotine and colchicine), E. coli in terrific broth, biological growth media (nutrient broth, terrific broth, tryptic soy broth), and inorganic chemical compounds (mercuric chloride and potassium ferricyanide). First, through adaptive transformation of the sensor outputs, contaminant signals were enhanced and background noise was reduced in time-series plots leading to detection and identification of all simulated contamination events. The improved sensor detection threshold was 0.1% of the background for pH and oxidation–reduction potential (ORP), 0.9% for free chlorine, 1.6% for total chlorine, and 0.9% for chloride. Second, the relative changes calculated from adaptively transformed residual chlorine measurements were quantitatively related to contaminant-chlorine reactivity in drinking water. We have shown that based on these kinetic and chemical differences, the tested contaminants were distinguishable in forensic discrimination diagrams made of adaptively transformed sensor measurements.