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Photo by NOAA, Winter Storm Uri engulfing the U.S.

Before Uri, Austin Water didn’t see winter weather as a threat

Thursday, April 1, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

Austin Water deemed winter weather a low risk to the city’s water supply before Winter Storm Uri, the utility told the Water Oversight Committee on Wednesday. 

Multiple climate and disaster preparedness plans failed to mention the threat of extreme winter weather, leaving the utility underprepared for the impending crisis. 

“Unfortunately, in this event, we did not have information to indicate that extreme winter weather was a risk for us,” said Anna Bryan-Borja, an assistant director at Austin Water. “We have weathered other winter storms in the past, and they have not had a significant impact on our infrastructure.”

The city’s water system failed catastrophically during the storm. Thousands of Austinites lost water for multiple days due to excess water usage demand from burst pipes and mains and dripping faucets. The leaks caused the city to issue a boil-water notice and drinkable water had to be brought in from out of state.

In light of this disaster, City Council members wondered why winter weather wasn’t seen as a risk. “We do not seem to have planned as a city with respect to our infrastructure and other things for cold weather,” Council Member Alison Alter said. “I’d like to better understand why not?”

Bryan-Borja explained how the utility assesses risks. “When we do risk planning,” she said, “we look at the whole spectrum of risks … but the items that are selected for specific corrective action are those items that have a very high likelihood of coming to fruition.” Such corrective actions could include training or infrastructure investment.

“I don’t want to leave you with the impression that we are completely unprepared for cold weather,” Bryan-Borja emphasized. “But in terms of a risk assessment, for preparing for emergencies, (winter weather) did not rise to that level.” 

Citywide climate resilience plans did not mention cold weather as a threat at all. Instead they focused on “the risk of increasing temperatures, and called out the fact that Austin is known for mild winters,” Bryan-Borja said.

Winter weather was also not included in Austin Water’s federally mandated risk and resilience assessment. The highest-priority threats for this plan, according to Bryan-Borja, included inclement weather in general, floods, droughts and extreme heat. The Environmental Protection Agency signed off on the city’s assessment.

Though the EPA requires updated plans every five years, Austin Water plans to do so every two years to better respond to changing risks. “Moving forward,” Bryan-Borja said, “Austin Water will adjust our responses to meet the threats that are evolving and our risk assessment will include extreme winter weather.”

Through these planning efforts, the utility intends to find the specific fixes to ensure the water supply doesn’t fail in future winter storms.

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