Water Concerns Related to Y2K

By Jane Frankenberger 
Extension Agricultural Engineer 

By now, practically everyone has heard about widespread problems in our infrastructure that may occur at midnight December 31, 1999 as a result of computers not handling dates in 4 digits. Although no one knows what will happen, there is a real chance that electric power will be interrupted for a few hours or even a few days. People who have private wells with electric pumps could experience a lack of water. 

For people on public water, the possibility of having no running water is more remote. Water utilities like everyone else responsible for public health and safety have been making efforts to ensure uninterrupted service at the turn of the millenium. Most systems have been assessing, planning, and testing solutions to the Y2K problem for many months. Many have creative means of dealing with potential problems such as having a New Years Eve party for employees and their families at the plant.

However water utilities, like everyone else, are dependent to some extent on the Y2K efforts of their suppliers and others who may not be properly prepared. Small communities appear to face a greater possibility of failure. A recent survey by the American Water Works Association found that 100% of systems serving more than 1 million people, but only 52% of systems serving less than 10,000 people, have a formal plan for addressing the year 2000. 

It is probably prudent for everyone to have some drinking water stored. Although there is a good chance no one will experience any problems, a supply of water will ensure that just in case there is a power outage or lack of water due to the Y2K problem, a blizzard, or any other emergency you will be prepared.

Storing water

Since treated water stores well, the easiest thing to do to prepare for Y2K is to store a couple daysí supply of water. 

How much water?

A normally active person needs to drink two quarts of water each day. Because additional water is needed for food preparation and hygiene, you should store a minimum of one gallon per person, per day. 

Extra water need for flushing the toilet depends on the type (and age) of the unit. Newer toilets require about 2 gallons/flush but units older than 15 years often require 5 or more gallons. Drinking water quality is not necessary here, so precautions are not necessary to protect its quality. 

How many daysí supply of water are needed? Thatís hard to say. It seems prudent to prepare for at least 2 or 3 days without power or without water.

How to Store Emergency Water Supplies

The Federal Emergency Management Agency gives the following instructions for ensuring the purity of stored water: 

You can store your water in thoroughly washed plastic, glass, fiberglass or enamel-lined metal containers. Never use a container that has held toxic substances, because tiny amounts may remain. Sound food-grade plastic containers, such as soft drink bottles, work well. You can also purchase food-grade plastic jugs, buckets or drums. 

Water primarily for flushing toilets could be stored in 5-gallon buckets or jugs, barrels, drums, or containers you have available such as bathtubs, clothes waters, or even a swimming pool.

If you will be storing your water for more than a week or so, treat it with a preservative, such as chlorine bleach, to prevent the growth of microorganisms. Use liquid bleach that contains 5.25 percent sodium hypochlorite and no soap. Some bleach containers warn, "Not For Personal Use." You can disregard these warnings if the label states sodium hypochlorite is the only active ingredient and if you use only the small quantities required. Add four drops of bleach per quart of water (or two scant teaspoons per 10 gallons), and stir. Seal your water containers tightly, label them and store them in a cool, dark place.

Purifying water

If you have access to water, but it is not of drinking water quality, you can often purify the water. In addition to having a bad odor and taste, contaminated water can contain microorganisms that cause diseases such as dysentery, cholera, typhoid and hepatitis.

There are many ways to purify water. None are perfect. Four easy purification methods are outlined below. These measures will kill microbes but will not remove other contaminants.

Boiling is the safest method of purifying water. Bring water to a rolling boil for 10 minutes, keeping in mind that some water will evaporate. Let the water cool before drinking. Boiled water will taste better if you put oxygen back into it by pouring it back and forth between two containers. This will also improve the taste of stored water.

Chlorination uses liquid chlorine bleach to kill microorganisms. Add two drops of bleach per quart of water (four drops if the water is cloudy), stir and let stand for 30 minutes. If the water does not taste and smell of chlorine at that point, add another dose and let stand another 15 minutes.

Purification tablets release chlorine or iodine. They are inexpensive and available at most sporting goods stores and some drugstores. Follow the package directions. Usually one tablet is enough for one quart of water. Double the dose for cloudy water.

Portable filtration units are available at sporting and other stores. They are intended for use by hikers, and are usually effective at removing suspended solids and bacteria.

For further information

The following web sites provide more information about water and water supply related to Y2K.

FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) Food and Water in an Emergency  This information does not focus on Y2K but describes preparations that are appropriate for most potential emergencies.

EPA Water and Wastewater Y2K site  describes what EPA is doing to make sure that safe drinking water and effective wastewater treatment will not be interrupted.

American Water Works Associationís Y2K web site provides information for water utilities as well as a survey of Y2K readiness by water supplies.

Many web sites focus on surviving the millenium. None should be considered authoritative as they have no formal review. However, they may provide ideas you find helpful. A starting place is http://www.cassandraproject.org which focuses on building stronger communities to prepare for any problems that might occur related to Y2K.