Some water treatment plants not Y2K-ready
By Reuters
Special to CNET
December 10, 1999, 4:15 p.m. PT

WASHINGTON--Many U.S. drinking water providers and sewage treatment plants have failed to complete preparations for the Year 2000 computer glitch, two private watchdog groups said today, which could result in overtreated tap water and sewage overflow.

"There are serious doubts that the 55,000 drinking water utilities and the 16,000 publicly owned wastewater facilities in the  United States will be well prepared for Y2K," said a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Y2K & Society.

The report said fewer than half of the drinking water utilities had completed all phases of Y2K preparations, including contingency planning and testing, as of June 1999, the date of the last industry survey.

Only 14 percent of wastewater plants had wrapped up the repair phase of their Y2K programs, the report said, citing the most recent survey of the Association of Metropolitan Sewage Agencies.

The American Water Works Association, the oldest and largest professional group dedicated to safe drinking water, disputed the new report and said its members were "well on the way if not fully prepared for Y2K."

"Our professional opinion is that the industry will be fully ready," said Doug Marsano, a spokesman in Denver. "We don't foresee a problem."

The report faulted the industries and government for botched reporting of water facilities' readiness for Y2K, a design flaw that could trip up older automated systems when computer clocks roll from 1999 to 2000.

"Official White House and congressional reports have misinterpreted a key utility readiness survey because the wording of the survey results was unintelligible," said Erik Olson, senior attorney for public health at the Resources Defense Council, a private advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

Water services could be disrupted in several ways by computer tangles, including overtreated or undertreated tap water and a loss of water pressure.

The General Accounting Office, the audit and investigative arm of Congress, also warned of the danger of "an overflow of untreated sewage into public waterways," the report said.

The watchdog groups also said the noncompliance was omitted from the "President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion" report, which oversaw the government's Y2K preparations.

In November the President's Council said, "Most drinking water and wastewater systems have the ability to convert to manual operations when automated processes are disrupted."

A spokesman for the President's Council said he will not comment on today's report until he speaks to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Norm Dean, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Y2K & Society, a nonprofit group seeking to cushion Y2K impact, said the industry data presented a "real cause for concern."

Because the report did not predict which water suppliers may be disrupted by Y2K, the center recommended households store 10 gallons of water per person for the date change, or enough to last 10 days.