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Council plans additional post-mortem review of water crisis

Tuesday, October 30, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

Although last week’s crisis has passed and Austinites once again have clean drinking water in their homes and offices, City Council still has much work to do.

In anticipation of the questions that would arrive in the aftermath of the boil water notice, last Thursday, Council Member Ellen Troxclair drafted a resolution requesting a review of the water crisis for the Nov. 1 City Council meeting. “I think it’s totally necessary and really the responsibility of the Council to make sure the public is getting answers to questions they have,” she told the Austin Monitor.

Although the resolution initially garnered support from Council members Alison Alter and Leslie Pool, other Council members suggested waiting until Nov. 15.

Council Member Ann Kitchen noted on the City Council Message Board that postponing the resolution would “allow the event to more fully conclude and provide staff some time to ensure systems are safe and back to normal for the public,” she said.

Already Austin Water staff members have a lot on their plates. On Monday, City Manager Spencer Cronk sent out a memo to Council stating that Austin Water will be performing a comprehensive, systemwide check in the next 10 to 14 days and will provide an After Action Report. In addition, Austin Water is planning to conduct its own review of the event while also monitoring and evaluating how the plants are doing while the utility builds back its capacity, according to Ginny Guerrero, Austin Water public information officer.

However, Troxclair told the Monitor that her resolution is intended to dig a little deeper. “This is a little bit more in depth, a little bit more detailed, and it ensures a public report rather than just information that’s provided to Council,” she said.

The drafted resolution specifically calls out the need for a forecast of the future of Austin’s water planning and supply as well as an analysis of city communications during an emergency. Communication, Troxclair explained, is imperative during any state of emergency. She noted that during this most recent crisis, the city generally relied on the media to disseminate the information rather than communicating directly with the citizens.

“I just feel like all week people were desperate for information, wanted to know why we were in this situation, wanted to know when we were going to get out of it,” she said.

Troxclair divided her resolution into two parts to address communication in emergency situations separately. She explained that this was an important distinction in order to highlight the gaps she saw last week and help the city develop a standard and effective protocol to reach Austinites in the future.

“We can definitely improve upon the way in which the community was notified. We have reverse 911 texting and calling and unfortunately that wasn’t utilized in this situation,” she said. “It seemed like there is some room for improvement with the way that the communications were handled.”

While there are still two and a half weeks until Troxclair presents this resolution to Council, already she has support from Council members Pio Renteria, Ora Houston, Pool and Alter.

Troxclair told the Monitor that although she regrets that they will not be able to address this resolution this week, it is a critical discussion that cannot be skipped as it affects one of the most basic aspects of every Austinite’s life. “We’re the 11th-largest city in the country and we have a reasonable expectation of clean drinking water,” she said.

Photo by Bob McMillan (This image is from the FEMA Photo Library.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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