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Water, water everywhere, but to drink?

There is nothing like the possibility of noxious bacteria in a glass of water to ruin your day. It is the sort of natural flavoring folks can live without.

We don't pay jacked-up water rates just so disease-causing microbes can flow from our faucets. Yet here we are, 30 years after the alarm sounded, still crossing our fingers every time a big storm hits and the power goes out.

Storms tend to happen around here. The folks running the Erie County Water Authority -- Director Robert Mendez and Commissioners Robert Lichtenthal, Frank Swiatek and Francis Warthling -- ought to make sure that our digestive systems remain unpolluted. Especially since they have a $25 million stash, fed by yearly hikes in our water bills, to pay for the backup power we need. But no.

Power went out for days when the surprise October storm hit. A half-million folks were advised to boil drinking water or to quaff from bottles. Water quality didn't slip into the danger zone, but we got a scare.

It should not have happened, as shown in recent stories by The Buffalo News' Matt Spina.

The problem -- first noted by a citizens commission 30 years ago -- is there are no permanent backup generators at our treatment plants and key pumping stations. If power goes down for days, folks might be better off sipping from Eighteen Mile Creek than holding a glass under the kitchen faucet.

A 2004 authority report said the kind of outage that hit Cleveland three years ago would have "devastating . . . impacts on [our] local economy and public health." Sick people. Dry fire hydrants. Closed businesses.

It was a call to bite the bullet and buy backup power generators. Instead, authority officials hired a high-priced lobbyist to try to squeeze the $6 million for backup power out of Washington. Three years and 600,000 of our dollars later, we still are waiting.

That is not all the authority did. It raised water rates for five straight years, building a rainy-day fund big enough for a tsunami. It could -- and should -- have used a $6 million slice of the $25 million stash to buy backup generators. Instead, authority officials sat on the pot. Of money, I mean.

Granted, the surplus lets the authority borrow money for a lower rate. The commissioners noted that the stash means "substantial savings going forward [as we] . . . invest in additional, backup power generators."

But Job One is clean drinking water, especially in emergencies. The authority has been playing Russian roulette. Instead of buying backup generators, it padded its surplus while betting against a serious power blackout.

Folks are presumably mad enough to vote these big-surplus, shortsighted bureaucrats out of office. But you can't. Running a public authority means never having to say you're sorry. Or ever having to face voters' wrath. These people aren't elected, they're appointed.

It shows. Last year, they handed a plum $93,000 engineering job to departing County Legislator Ed Kuwik, apparently in return for past political favors. Authority Commissioner Lichtenthal held onto his freebie car long after others had retired theirs. His mileage expenses in 2004 would have make a Fed Ex driver blush.

There's more. The authority's Washington lobbyist is still around, but his pay was cut in half -- perhaps on the presumption that he would do twice the job at half the price. If it weren't real life, it would be a Dilbert strip.

Director Mendez says not to worry. The authority will buy a backup generator for the vital Sturgeon Point treatment plant and have it running by 2009.

Until then, keep your fingers crossed -- and directions to Eighteen Mile Creek handy.


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