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Council members want answers to boil-water incident by end of week

Monday, February 7, 2022 by Chad Swiatecki

City Council members responsible for monitoring Austin Water service said they expect to receive a complete report by the end of this week explaining the cause behind the boil-water notice that went into effect on Saturday night.

The Austin area went through a multi-day period of below-freezing temperatures last week that was less severe than last year’s winter storm, which cut off water service for a week or more in some cases and also resulted in water customers having to boil their water for multiple days.

Saturday’s boil-water notice – the area’s third since 2018 – appears not to have been weather-related. Early reports chalked it up to a “staff operations issue” that was still being investigated while crews worked to address the issue that led to an increase in the turbidity, or cloudiness, of water.

Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, who recently took over as chair of the Water Oversight Committee, said she would like to hold a special meeting of the whole Council dedicated to the water issue ahead of the committee’s next regular meeting on Feb. 23.

“People are wanting to know what is being done with our local infrastructure and know that our infrastructure will work in the way it is designed,” she said. “When we have incidents like this where we’re issuing boil-water notices almost on a yearly basis with three (since 2018), folks have had enough. They want to know what happened and who’s being held accountable.

“We all need to be taking a look at this. It makes sense right now to focus on getting through this boil-water notice and as soon as you have the information about what happened and what needs to be done and improved, that conversation needs to happen as soon as we have all the information.”

Once the boil notice was issued Saturday, the city set up distribution centers for bottled water, with four locations operating as of Sunday afternoon.

Fuentes said a visit to a distribution site in her district made her want to look further into what the city can do to provide water directly to senior living centers and other locations that serve community members who may have difficulty traveling to pick up water.

Increased distribution of bottled water during water quality incidents was one of the steps detailed in the after-action report Austin Water released late last year regarding the service interruptions caused by the 2021 winter storm.

The oversight committee received a presentation last month on that report that included a new power distribution building at the Davis Water Treatment Plant and replacement of outdated electrical equipment at the Ullrich Water Treatment Plant.

Council Member Ann Kitchen, who also serves on that committee, said she appreciated the “transparency” water utility officials provided in the report and expects the utility to produce answers quickly about what caused this weekend’s problem. “We don’t have the details yet from an after-action report, which will come very quickly, that will tell us about that,” she said.

Council Member-elect Chito Vela, who was set to be sworn in today as the new representative in District 4, said steps need to be taken to prevent internal processes and operations by the utility from disrupting service to more than a million people in the Austin metro area.

“The frustration that I’m sensing out there right now is this is something that was unnecessary and we don’t know what the triggering event was since it wasn’t the weather or some kind of outside accident where you understand what the cause is,” he said. “This is a system that serves water to more than a million people including people in unincorporated areas, and there needs to be an uninterruptible service for water and drainage with failsafes so there can’t be these catastrophic interruptions with boil-water notices.”

City of Austin

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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