Boiling Water Has Some Boiling Mad
Seeking a definitive end to annual occurrences, Council calls for external audit
Last Saturday Austin experienced its third boil water notice in four years: this time a result of human error and unrelated to last week's ice storm (just a monumental coincidence).
Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros, who's been in the position for 14 years, said in a press conference Sunday night that Ullrich Water Treatment Plant employees had made "oversights and errors" in the clarifying treatment process, resulting in high turbidity – a concentration of particles of clay or silt and a key measurement of water quality – which wasn't stopped before it flowed into the finished water for around 30 minutes. Meszaros was notified at around 8am Saturday morning, but the issue wasn't fully investigated and the notice didn't go out until around 7:30pm that evening. Meszaros says this type of error "has never happened before."
On Sunday, Austin Water laid out five steps to be taken before the notice could be lifted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality – estimated to occur by Tuesday evening. Two were checked off by Monday, as the Ullrich Plant came back online and was operating at normal production levels. Water sampling began Monday, and by Tuesday at 10:22pm – stretching the definition of "evening" – 44 samples from across the system showed no quality issues, at which point TCEQ was able to lift the notice. (As of press time, some wholesale water systems affected by the notice, including the city of Sunset Valley, were still awaiting test results.)
By Tuesday the city had established eight total water supply sites in tandem with the Equity Office, "with an intentional effort to locate sites in high-need areas so these limited supplies can go to those who need it most," explained Juan Ortiz, the city's director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Residents with limited mobility could call 311 to request water delivery, and the city partnered with the Community Resilience Trust to deliver water to unhoused residents.
Council Member Paige Ellis has requested a special called meeting to investigate how this mistake happened and how to prevent it in the future; that meeting is tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 15. In a Council message board post, CM Kathie Tovo wondered "why it was not possible to shift reliance to the other two plants (Handcox and Davis Water Treatment Plants) given that it sounds as if the problem was isolated to Ullrich" – Davis and Handcox did increase production after Ullrich went offline, allowing water to continue flowing, but because the distribution system is interconnected, "the issues at Ullrich triggered regulations requiring a citywide notice," says Austin Water's public information office. Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter has also called for an external audit of the utility, supported by four other CMs.
Questions have been raised about how many Austinites actually received the notice – HSEM Public Information Officer Bryce Bencivengo says this is because there are two primary methods for emergency alerts, which not all residents have opted into. The first is through Austin Water – if you're a customer with an account you receive a text only in English – but if you live in an apartment complex that manages water for you, you would not. The second is Warn Central Texas, a regional system that around 60-70% of the city has opted into. Landlines and VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) numbers in the Austin Water service area are automatically enrolled, but everyone else must opt in through the website (warncentraltexas.org). The service is more precise than something like Amber Alerts, which can only select, for example, "South Austin," and might cause confusion with people who weren't affected by the notice, says Bencivengo. Warn Central Texas can go all the way down to a block radius. Bencivengo says especially if you've recently moved to Austin, and into the Austin Water service area, it is critical to make sure to register.
Warn Central Texas made 1.2 million contacts in English and Spanish with the notice on Saturday. (That doesn't mean 1.2 million people – contacts are an email or a phone number, so some people could have received several contacts, explains Bencivengo.) Austin Water sent 122,640 texts Saturday and 174,736 Tuesday. Some received the initial text but not the lift notice, or vice versa, and there is still confusion around the inconsistency of the alerts. Emergency communications were an issue noted in the Winter Storm Uri After Action Report, which found that many initial storm alerts were sent only in English, while those in Spanish followed days later. Austin Water PIO says this is the second time they've used the customer portal for emergency alerts and that they're "working to expand our multilanguage notification process."
In a press release Tuesday night, Meszaros assured the public that "Austin Water will immediately begin a thorough review of the incident and will implement any necessary process improvements to avoid operator errors in the future." Mayor Steve Adler called for answers from the city manager in next week's Council meeting and said he "continue[s] to be inspired by all the ways our community comes together to help one another in times of need. And we are ready to get past such 'times in need.' ... We need to be confident that this won't happen again."