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Protect the water supply Flaws left county on brink of a public health disaster

October's near debacle at the Erie County Water Authority makes two distinct but related points about a problem that could have left hundreds of thousands of people without water.

One is that residents cannot rely on the Water Authority to act responsibly in their interest. The second, which flows from the first, is that someone needs to make it his job to oversee, prod and, if necessary, pummel the authority until backup generators are in place. Only then can county residents know that they won't lose their access to clean, running water during a catastrophic power failure.

That risk was known during the August 2003 power failure that spread across the Northeast. It was a threat here, again, in last October's surprise blizzard, but just how much of a threat wasn't revealed until this month: Buffalo's suburbs were within hours of losing all water. No water to drink for people or pets. No water for cooking, no water for bathing or for washing clothes, dishes or floors. No water for flushing toilets. The county was on the brink of a public health disaster.

For years, leaders of the Water Authority have been dragging their feet on installing backup generators where they are needed, hoping instead that high-paid lobbying would wheedle the money out of Washington. As a result, the Pine Hill water tank in Cheektowaga came within two hours of running dry during the October crisis. The tank serves customers in Cheektowaga, Amherst and Lancaster.

Since the storm, the authority has committed to an upgrade program. By 2009, generators are to be installed at the Sturgeon Point treatment plant in Evans, which stopped during the storm, as part of a five-year, $100 million project.

That's good news, but county residents might feel more secure if someone accountable to them were publicly dogging this project. Public authorities tend to be shadowy entities, and this effort is too important not to know for certain that it is getting done right.

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