Weathering Austin’s Next “Unprecedented” Winter Storm

Why we can’t just bury the power lines or trim back all the trees

Thousands lost power after a major ice storm in Austin Jan. 31-Feb. 2, primarily due to downed trees on power lines (Photo by John Anderson)

Though the weather this week has been South By-perfect, with agreeable highs in the 80s and lows in the 50s, just a mere month ago we were under a sharp rain of falling icy tree limbs, resulting in weeklong power outages for the second time in two years. One of the calls to action coming out of Winter Storm Mara – overshadowed by City Manager Spencer Cronk's storm-related sacking – was to scrutinize the vegetation management practices of the ratepayer-­owned city utility, Austin Energy. Why did so much of Aus­tin's beautiful canopy catastrophically collide with power lines?

As is often the case in Austin, it has something to do with homeowner-led efforts to keep Austin beautiful. Elton Rich­ards, AE's vice president of field operations, traces veg management issues back to 2006, when Hyde Park residents successfully petitioned Council to reduce customer tree trimming to a 4-foot trim for slow-growing trees and 8 feet for fast-growing trees. A June 2006 Hyde Park Pecan Press issue refers to a tree-trimming "moratorium" secured by the neighborhood and advertises a free TreeFolks planting "to replace the one that was 'trimmed' by Austin Energy." Neighbors worried that improperly trained outside contractors butchered the trees, a concern Richards says has since been assuaged: "All the guys that work for me could get a job at the National Forest Service tomorrow." They also pressed Council to consider burying power lines. (Buried lines saved Dallas, hit about as hard by the recent winter storm, from the kind of power outages that Austinites endured.)

In 2019, AE General Manager Jackie Sargent reestablished the prior standard of a 10-foot trim for slow-growing trees and 15 feet for fast-growing. But more than a decade of minimal trimming practices left AE crews scrambling to catch up to new standards – of the 304 circuits citywide that require trimming, they've completed 62 circuits (149 miles) so far. They plan to finish another 250 miles in 2023 and the whole city by 2026. To mitigate homeowner complaints, six months before the trimming, arborists tour the neighborhood to assess trees and leave door hangers to notify residents. About 40% of residents call to ask questions, Richards says, and 10%-20% request an arborist-led walk-through.

During the flurry of press conferences this February, Rich­ards made clear that the damage Austin trees sustained last month was pretty much inevitable – a half-inch of ice on a branch can weigh 500 pounds. "That wasn't a vegetation management issue." As the climate becomes more unpredictable, trees and power lines will encounter more ice. So if we can't help the trees, can we help the lines?

Post-storm, Council directed a third party to conduct a feasi­bility study for burying all overhead distribution lines. Sounds simple, but Richards says in a flood-prone city like Austin the process would be logistically ill-advised and "extremely cost prohibitive." One mile of line would cost over $1 million, and distribution lines stretch about 5,000 miles. Without a bond, such improvements aren't in the cards.

If we can't bury the power lines, how can we improve climate resilience and avoid massive power outages every winter? Richards says, "I could take all the trees 40 feet away from all the power lines and take them down; then you don't have to worry about a tree ever coming onto a power line. But is that worth giving up the tree? I don't think it is. We get to the standard and reliability will improve, but it will not stop an act of God. There's nothing we can do about that."

* Editor's note Tuesday, March 21, 1pm: A previous version of this story incorrectly noted 2,400 miles of distribution lines. Those are the primary lines; adding secondary services and street light service there are altogether 5,000 miles of distribution lines that are still above ground. The Chronicle regrets the error.

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Austin Energy, Winter storm Mara, Uri, Elton Richards

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