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Austin Water responds to ‘demoralizing’ water outages

Thursday, March 4, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

Austin Water gave a presentation to the Water Oversight Committee on Wednesday detailing the timeline of the water outages last month, preparation for future disasters and upcoming utility bill relief measures.

City Council members demanded to know how a substantial portion of Austin residents lost water during the freeze, among other questions about Austin Water’s response. Answers so far proved incomplete. Full answers will likely take months to surface as part of a “thorough and objective, multi-part resiliency review.”

Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros pledged to create a more resilient water system that “operates in a way that our employees don’t have to be heroes.”

“When we talk about resiliency, it’s not only our infrastructure systems, it’s our communication systems … our preparedness,” Meszaros said. “Those are the kind of areas that Austin Water is going to be stepping up and examining.”

Meszaros, like many members of the public, said he felt “demoralized” at times during the winter storm that left thousands without water for days, shut down one of the city’s main water treatment plants and forced a boil-water notice for the entire city.

Rick Coronado, assistant director of operations, gave a timeline of the water outages. The image below shows water usage and output during the height of the crisis.

Coronado said the night of Feb. 16 was when “we started seeing that we could not – even with our production plants – we could not sustain that level” of water needed to provide for two and a half times normal usage. Neither could the utility “see or identify any leaks that were in the system that we could go shut off.”

The figure below shows a timeline of public water main leaks.

Meszaros said in addition to main breaks, there were “clearly tens of thousands of buildings that experienced burst pipes, burst fire lines, burst water heaters, and it’s very difficult to keep the public system rolling when you experience tens of thousands of private infrastructure failures.”

Though Austin Water is just beginning its review of what went wrong in the crisis, it has already begun to eye changes, officials said. The utility plans to improve the water outage and leak fix maps which were developed and released “on the fly.” “We need to make interactive maps an everyday business,” said Meszaros. The utility also plans to stockpile water in case of a future crisis. During the winter storm, clean water had to be brought from out of state and was delayed because of treacherous roads. Long-term fixes will be mulled in the coming months.

Council will vote today on immediate measures to ensure customers don’t pay extra for their water bills. Joseph Gonzales, director of financial services at Austin Water, said the utility would use the estimated water consumption from either last February or this January to calculate February 2021 bills. Council will also vote on authorizing $5 million for water and energy bill relief.

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