GAO says Interior faces possible Y2K meltdown

The Interior Department, one of the least information technology-intensive federal agencies, faces a potentially crippling Year 2000 problem that could prevent it from managing millions of acres of land, according to the General Accounting Office.

"The department's core business process could fail— in whole or in part— if supporting information systems are not made Year 2000-compliant in time," Joel Willemssen, director for civil agencies information systems at GAO, told the House Committee on Resources last month. "For example, control systems that regulate water flow and generators in our nation's dams, which produce over 42 billion kilowatts of energy each year, could fail."

As part of its mission, Interior collects and disburses billions of dollars in royalties from businesses mining federal lands, oversees American Indian trust funds and manages the nation's parks and federal hydroelectric dams.

The effects of Interior's computers failing could have broad implications, GAO officials said. For example, Interior's Bureau of Land Management is in the midst of modernizing its Automated Land and Mineral Record System (ALMRS), which oversees the use of millions of acres of federal land; tracks oil, gas and mineral leases and lease applications; and tracks timber and land sales. The ALMRS upgrade, which will cost $537 million, will replace two systems that are not Year 2000-compliant. But the modernization effort has been plagued by delays.

"Delays in implementing ALMRS introduce the risk that BLM will be forced to continue using these two systems beyond 2000," Willemssen said.

Olga Grkavac, senior vice president with the Information Technology Association of America's Systems Integration Division, said it is likely that less technologically intensive agencies, such as Interior, get less Year 2000 attention from officials. "There's still so much concern on the larger agencies that are not where they should be," she said. "But that's not fair to Interior because people who depend on Interior have some really pressing needs." Interior's annual IT budget totals about $500 million.

But John Berry, assistant secretary for policy management and budget at Interior, said the agency's efforts to fix the Year 2000 problem are well-coordinated. "We have developed a comprehensive plan to attack this problem, and our goal is to have all critical systems able to handle Year 2000 dates no later than the spring of 1999," Berry told the committee.

Berry also emphasized that the department has made strides in fixing the problem. He said the Office of Management and Budget in February upgraded Interior to the so-called "Tier 3" category, a rating OMB gives to agencies making satisfactory progress in fixing computers.Dave Brandt, the Year 2000 program manager for Interior, last week echoed Berry's assurance. "The risk is really minimal," said Brandt, explaining that systems at dams should be Year 2000-compliant by the end of the year.

He said systems for dams would likely switch over to manual mode if the Year 2000 problem were left unfixed, meaning dam workers, not computers, would determine when to open and close dams. "All the systems that protect life or property, I don't think we have a real problem with," he said.

Brandt also said contingency plans are under way now for the two systems that ALMRS will replace in case ALMRS is not deployed by 2000.

But he said Year 2000 problems may lie buried in other Interior systems. "The real concern is the things that we haven't found on the embedded [chip] side," he said. "We're hunting right now."

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