This Week’s Rolling Boil

Living a handful of days without good water

If you weren't waiting in a long early voting line this week, you might have been in similar formation trying to fill up on bottled water. On Monday, Austin Water issued a boil-water notice due to recent flooding, asking customers to bring tap water to a three-minute rolling boil before drinking. Residents were told they'd need to halt all outdoor water use and reduce personal water consumption by 15-20%. The notice affected 880,000 Austin Water customers.

Silt levels in the water coming in from the Highland Lakes slowed Austin Water's treatment facilities, and made it such that clean water can't get produced fast enough for city consumption. But because Austin Water needs to produce a certain amount of pressure for effective fire protection, the utility needs to keep levels of production high out of the plant. So they pulled the goalie and allowed water to be distributed "at treatment levels not typical of the utility's high standards for consumption."

In an address before Travis County commissioners Tuesday morning, Chief Emer­gen­cy Management Coordinator Eric Carter said the notice could go on for 10 to 14 days. However, that figure was quickly contradicted by Austin Water officials, who said they expect the boil order to last only "a handful of days." During a press conference at City Hall later that day, officials said the boil-water notice would end "hopefully by this weekend." Why the conflicting reports? If you tell an emergency manager to plan for a five-day trip, he'll pack a bag for 10 days, said Travis County officials. While the county will continue to plan for a possible 10-to-14-day boil-water notice, they expressed confidence in Austin Water's shorter estimates.

Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros added that the utility's estimate is contingent upon sufficiently refilling drinking water reservoirs and ensuring water quality. One variable that can't be controlled, he warned, is the weather; rains on Wednesday will likely set back that weekend goal. He said Austin Water has seen lower demand, as the city urgently requested, over the last 24 hours; even though the city's three treatment plants are operating at just a third of their usual capacity due to the nasty condition of their raw water inflows, drinking water production is still higher than consumption. "That's really, really positive," he said.

By Wednesday the precautionary measure turned into an official state-mandated notice as required by the Texas Com­mis­sion on Environmental Quality. Up until now, Austin Water had not exceeded regulatory turbidity (water cloudiness) standards. How­ever, the brief spike has ended and doesn't require any changes to the measures already in place and does not put the public at additional risk, say city officials.

Residents should call 311 if they see gross violations of water restrictions or have any nonemergency concerns.

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Austin Water, Greg Meszaros, Eric Carter

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