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Alter wants outside audit to address boil-water incidents

Wednesday, February 9, 2022 by Chad Swiatecki

Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter wants outside experts to conduct an audit of Austin Water to find out what operational issues and internal processes may have contributed to the city experiencing three boil-water incidents since 2018.

On Monday, Alter posted to the City Council Message Board and sent out a newsletter to her district calling for the audit to “identify appropriate protocol, operational, investment and other changes and actions” needed for the utility. She wrote: “In a crisis I believe it is important to operate with openness and transparency. That is why I have also emphasized to the city manager that our community needs more information about the decision-making process and steps taken between the detection of the turbidity problem and the issuance of the precautionary boil-water notice hours later. We also need to better understand what the health risks might be in consuming tap water before the boil-water notice was issued.”

Council members Kathie Tovo and Vanessa Fuentes were among the co-sponsors of the resolution, with Council members Leslie Pool, Paige Ellis and Mackenzie Kelly asking to be added as co-sponsors.

The boil-water notice, which was issued Saturday night, ended Tuesday night after Austin Water teams worked to deal with an issue related to the turbidity, or cloudiness, of water at the Ullrich Water Treatment Plant.

Alter said the immediate priority was getting the water restored to normal operation and continuing to provide bottled water to those in need.

Looking ahead, she said the external audit would be key to “restoring trust” in the city’s ability to reliably provide basic services.

“At this point we believe this is a personnel issue and not an infrastructure issue. That is all the more reason why we need to be thinking operationally so we’re running the best possible water system that we can. It’s a technical policy area with a complicated system and we need to have a systems approach with people who are able to look at this through a technical lens as well as seeing the bigger picture of how you operate an enterprise of that size with the levels of risk involved,” she said.

“We need to understand what happened in this incident and learn where we have blinders now and can’t see the things we need to be doing. We need someone who can guide us through that.”

Also on the message board, Council members discussed holding a special meeting next Tuesday to focus on the water issue. In addition to getting initial reports on the cause of the boil-water notice, Alter said the city needs to look at the impacts on residents and businesses that had to go multiple days without drinkable tap water, with the possibility that the city needs to “provide relief” to those parties.

Also at issue is how Austin Water should handle the return of normal service, which will likely be followed by homes and businesses flushing their systems of possibly contaminated water that could increase usage to a level that creates a supply shortage.

While Fuentes and Council Member Ann Kitchen called for an after-action report by the end of this week, Alter said it will likely take longer to receive the results of a full investigation.

“I don’t know how quickly we can do an investigation to know more. My hope is we’ll get more information and even if we don’t get the full investigation then people at least need to get some understanding of what happened on Saturday,” she said.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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