Buffalo's populous suburbs were just hours from losing all water during October's surprise snowstorm because the Erie County Water Authority had never braced for a widespread power failure.
"We estimate that we were, at most, two hours away from the heart of the system being without water," said Thomas P. Casey, a county health official who had been nudging the water system to install backup power at its two treatment plants and major pump sites that propel water into homes, businesses and hospitals.
Examining information requested from the Water Authority, Casey and other health engineers have learned that the water network serving 550,000 people was going dry more quickly than surmised at the time and that the system sorely needs permanent standby power at key sites.
Health officials now know that some tanks in the Southtowns were empty the night of Friday, Oct. 13, the day the storm ended.
At its lowest point, the Pine Hill tank in Cheektowaga serving the Northtowns held only about two hours of water destined for customers in Cheektowaga, Amherst and Lancaster.
Had the tank gone dry, Casey said, Water Authority customers from Amherst to Hamburg would have faced more troubles than those accompanying a power failure. They would have lost toilets that flush, fire hydrants that work and shower heads from which to bathe, let alone water that could be made consumable after boiling for two minutes.
"This just indicates how vulnerable we are," said County Legislator Kathy Konst, D-Lancaster, and president of the Chamber of Commerce in Lancaster, a village and town of 40,000 that would have been without water.
"It was an emergency. It was a storm. It was a crisis," she said. "And that's why people have backup generators. That's why industries have backup generators. That's why fire companies have backup generators. With the Erie County Water Authority, they had those types of emergencies before. And they failed to follow their own recommendations."
Further, the state's health law requires water utilities to have plans to provide drinkable water during an emergency. In some cases that has meant bringing in bottled water or tanker trucks so people can fill jugs.
>Health Dept. acted
Even though the authority spends thousands of dollars a month on a Washington lobbyist and $30,000 a year on an image consultant, its county- and state-approved emergency plan made no provision to place water in neighborhoods during an emergency.
In October, that chore became the county Health Department's, which arranged for water to be trucked in that weekend, if needed.
Fortunately, National Grid restored electricity at 6:35 p.m. Oct. 13 to the powerful Sturgeon Point treatment plant in Evans. The Ball Pump Station near the University at Buffalo North Campus in Amherst became operational as well, and with the help of portable generators elsewhere, pressure was restored.
In its examination, the county Health Department wants to determine if water officials mounted an adequate response to the emergency. The state Health Department is a part of that inquiry. A County Legislature committee also may play a role in exposing information.
"I'd like to have the Water Authority commissioners and the top management appear before the Health Committee to respond to the health threat that has come to light through the October storm," said County Legislator Cynthia Locklear, D-West Seneca, committee chairwoman. "The health threat applies not only to the quality of the water but the very existence of water during an emergency."
Robert Mendez, authority executive director, told reporters Oct. 13 that the storm and its widespread power failure crippled the water network in "a magnitude that we never believed would occur."
But his officials already knew the risks. They had written a warning less than three years earlier, after the Northeast blackout of 2003 halted water service for days in Cleveland and Detroit.
"If one of the [authority's] two main treatment plants or major distribution facilities went out of service for an extended period of time due to conditions similar to Aug. 14, 2003, the results could be catastrophic," officials wrote in an internal document.
The warning was not a call to action. Even though the authority held $25 million in its reserve fund, officials refused to dip into it for a $6 million project to install standby power for their most critical machinery. The dire prediction was written to help a $20,000-a-month Washington lobbyist request federal money for the project. But the lobbying firm never obtained a budget earmark.
Since 2003, the county Health Department has been urging the Water Authority to install backup power as the county's other large systems -- Buffalo's and the Town of Tonawanda's -- had done or were doing. The Health Department argued that two independent feeds of electricity into a water facility no longer were adequate because both could be knocked out in the same storm.
The Water Authority depends on pumps to draw Lake Erie water into its two treatment plants and then carry it to customers inland. But at a meeting last spring, water officials told the Health Department they did not expect to install standby power until 2012 or 2013, Casey said.
"We weren't happy with it," he said. "Because it was so many years into the future, you don't have any assurance that it would happen. . . . It just indicated it was a low priority."
Following the October storm, however, Mendez said backup power would be installed in the Sturgeon Point treatment plant by 2009 as part of a wide-ranging improvement program costing $100 million over five years.
The Water Authority says it acknowledged Oct. 13 that some users could lose water. In a television interview at about 6 p.m., Mendez said, "It would not surprise me if it does happen in the very near future." Homes at higher elevations were most susceptible, he said.
In a written statement last week, the authority said it informed emergency officials of the risk early in the day, urged customers to conserve water, borrowed generators for some of its key sites and stationed its own portable generators as needed. It cleared storm debris, consulted with National Grid and New York State Electric & Gas about restoring power and issued the boil-water advisory.
A slip in water pressure compromises water quality, prompting the order to boil tap water before drinking it, cooking with it, brushing teeth or cleaning a wound with it. But the county Health Department, not the Water Authority, issued the order.
"They didn't want us to do the boil-water advisory," County Executive Joel A. Giambra said of water officials. The order, Giambra explained, would call attention to the fact that the authority never had installed emergency generators.
"They were fighting us and wanted us to lift it," Giambra said.
>Rates raised in 6 years
But Dr. Anthony J. Billittier IV, county health commissioner, refused to do so until lab tests deemed the water safe.
For decades, the Water Authority has been considered a patronage nest for the political class, its three-member governing board selected by party leaders and rubber-stamped by the County Legislature.
Water officials dispute the description, especially as it relates to the present-day organization. But this decade, commissioners insulated from voter backlash have raised water rates for six consecutive years, even though their rainy day fund equals 40 percent of their annual financial needs.
"This failure of the Water Authority's operation is an indictment of the upper management and in turn the system by which the political structure installs the commissioners of the Water Authority," said Locklear, the County Legislature's Health Committee chairwoman.
"Politics alone should not be the criteria that's used," she said. "I believe that the Legislature should be called upon to demand more oversight."