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Austin Water outlines actions for dealing with the next crisis

Monday, January 24, 2022 by Jo Clifton

Since last February’s winter storm, Austin Water has taken numerous steps, both big and small, to prepare for the impact of another such emergency. Director Greg Meszaros told City Council’s Austin Water Oversight Committee last week that, with the help of a working group from the Water and Wastewater Commission, the water utility has prioritized its needs.

Austin Water was one of the departments that seemed to be taken completely by surprise by Winter Storm Uri, and was among those facing the toughest challenges. The utility has expanded its emergency management team, adding three full-time employees in the current fiscal year and an emergency plans officer to be shared with the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Department.

Meszaros told the committee he wanted to promise that his department would be “faithful” to its task of following recommendations made in the wake of the 2021 storm and the Colorado River flood of 2018. Of the “dozens of recommendations” the utility received, “I want you to know that we faithfully carried them out. They have been completed or on the way to being completed.” He noted that Council will be asked to approve new contracts that will make Austin Water more resilient in the future.

To enable it to deal with future emergencies, Austin Water has undertaken a systemwide review of its facilities. As a result, the utility has completed a new power distribution building at the Davis Water Treatment Plant and secured a secondary power source for the pump station, according to Assistant Director Shay Ralls Roalson.

Construction is underway at the Ullrich Water Treatment Plant to replace electrical equipment that was installed at the time the plant was built. Roalson said electrical gear original to the South Austin Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant Substation No. 1 is also currently being replaced.

Roalson also told committee members about accelerated work to finish projects such as a Southwest Parkway elevated storage tank and transmission main, and a new 2 million gallon water storage tank to serve Southwest B pressure zone. The utility is also adding more generators at priority wastewater lift stations.

Stephanie Sue, assistant director of water treatment operations, told the committee the department had completed critical repairs and added insulation to a variety of piping and equipment. Austin Water acquired sand, vehicle chains, boot spikes and cots as well as MREs for employees who might be required to spend days at a water or wastewater plant. Sue also noted that the utility is using new remotely operated tools to inspect tanks while in operation.

The department has beefed up its emergency water distribution supplies, adding large bottled water contracts as well as two potable water trucks to its inventory.

Austin Water’s public information office has created a real-time service outage map that will enable customers to see any problems occurring in their area. Utility spokesperson Randi Jenkins said the utility has also provided a boil-water video with updated instructions on its website. Those who might need to shut off water to their homes can find how-to advice on a YouTube video.

Council Member Ann Kitchen, who chairs the water committee, asked how customers could get a water shutoff tool. Jenkins said the department had distributed more than 10,000 cold weather kits, which include the tool, and more have been ordered. Water valve shutoff tools are also generally available at any hardware store.

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