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Storm put county's water at crisis level Risky step weighed amid October snow

During the surprise October snowstorm, the Erie County Water Authority was considering a rare and risky emergency measure to prevent its system from going completely dry.

Executive Director Robert A. Mendez revealed Tuesday that officials were preparing to reverse the flow of water from their northern treatment plant in the Town of Tonawanda as a way to feed the Southtowns, where some tanks were empty because the storm had knocked out power to the southern treatment plant.

The emergency measure would have dirtied water and might have broken some water lines as the flow was reversed through decades-old pipes, Mendez acknowledged after speaking with a County Legislature committee.

But when it comes to being able to flush a toilet, or fill fire hydrants and hospital boilers, dirty water is better than no water at all, a county health official said later.

"In an emergency event like this, the turbidity potential, which would have been there with reverse flow, is definitely preferable to water not being there for hydrants to fight fires or to hospitals to run their equipment," said health engineer Thomas P. Casey, who said he was unaware in October that the method was being considered.

In examining the October snowstorm, Casey and other county health officials have learned that Buffalo's sprawling suburbs were on the brink of a public health emergency. With electrical power knocked out to critical pumps Oct. 13, the Water Authority network was rapidly going dry.

The heart of the system, roughly from Amherst to Hamburg, was about two hours away from having no water at all, Casey learned after a recent examination of Water Authority data.

Fortunately, history unfolded differently.

The governor's office, through the state's Public Service Commission, prevailed upon National Grid to make the restoration of power to the massive Sturgeon Point Treatment Plant in Evans a priority. That facility, which treats Lake Erie water for the Southtowns and dense neighborhoods to the northeast, groaned to life for good at 6:35 p.m. Oct. 13.

Moments earlier, water crews had been rifling through a checklist in their emergency plan to direct some water from their still-operating northern treatment plant -- Tonawanda's Van de Water -- to fill pipes usually pressurized by Sturgeon Point.

The crews would have had to close a series of valves, then hope that pipes and junctions could withstand the change in direction, Mendez said Tuesday as he completed a presentation to the Legislature's Energy and Environment Committee.

Until Sturgeon Point was re-energized, about 550,000 residents would have been completely dependent on the smaller Van de Water plant to treat their water.

The Water Authority's response to the October storm has been questioned by some lawmakers and other county officials because the independent agency never installed permanent standby power for its treatment plants and critical pumps, even though officials had plenty of money in reserve and internally acknowledged the risk of a power failure years earlier.

Since the storm, officials have moved up the installation of backup power, particularly at Sturgeon Point, which is to have its standby generators installed by 2009. The generators alone require 14 months to be delivered, noted the authority's executive engineer, Wesley C. Dust.

The Water Authority is greatly concerned with its image. It pays $30,000 to a public relations firm, which sent a staff member to the Legislature session. It paid $15,000 for a survey of customers, after which officials concluded they could do more in the areas of "service and self-promotion."

A large part of the authority's presentation to lawmakers Tuesday involved accomplishments:

* Its ability to pay off debt and complete large improvements with money on hand rather than borrowed money.

* Its ability to serve more customers with 71 fewer full-time employees than a decade ago.

* The fact that seven of every 10 employees compete for their jobs through civil service rules, when in the past the authority had a reputation as a patronage mill.

* As for last fall's storm, water officials said that on Oct. 13, they still pumped 60 percent of the water they pump on a normal October day, even with Sturgeon Point out of service for several hours.

"The bottom line here is that this is not your father's Water Authority," said an impressed committee chairman, Legislator Thomas A. Loughran, D-Amherst.

Earlier, however, Mendez had faced a torrent of pointed questions from Legislator Cynthia E. Locklear, D-West Seneca, chairwoman of the Health Committee. Mendez acknowledged that the Water Authority is in the middle of the pack among its peers when it comes to installing backup power.

The other major providers in Erie County alone -- the City of Buffalo and the Town of Tonawanda -- are further along. Service to their customers was not affected in the October storm.

Lawmakers appoint the commissioners -- who over the years have had some type of relationship with the political parties. But once commissioners are appointed to their three-year terms, they can run the independent water system free of Legislature involvement.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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