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Photo by ATXN. Austin Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros answers questions Tuesday.

Water utility chief answers questions about boil-water notice

Wednesday, February 16, 2022 by Jo Clifton

Following an unexpected boil-water notice not related to a winter storm, Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros announced his resignation last week from a job he has held for nearly 15 years. Several City Council members took the opportunity to praise his leadership at Tuesday’s special called meeting; however, for most of the two-hour meeting, Meszaros and Assistant Director Rick Coronado focused on a number of unanswered questions about what happened at the Ullrich water treatment plant between the night of Friday, Feb. 4, and 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 5, when Austin Water issued a boil-water notice to the public.

“We are conducting a thorough investigation to gather all the facts and make sound decisions about the protocols and technology that will prevent this kind of error in the future,” Meszaros said.

As a result of the utility’s initial investigation into the cause of the turbidity that forced water officials to take the plant offline, three utility employees have been suspended. It is not clear why those employees apparently failed to follow proper procedures once high turbidity was discovered. Austin Water has not released their names, but the utility says no contaminants were found in the drinking water.

On Tuesday, Meszaros addressed statements made by a caller to KLBJ radio station who claimed to be one of the suspended employees. The caller, who identified himself as “Lawrence,” claimed the problems at Ullrich were the result of a “freeze event and failed valves that froze during the winter storm.” However, Meszaros said none of the suspended workers are named Lawrence and that he has “seen no evidence that that was what caused this whatsoever.”

Council Member Paige Ellis observed a few minutes later, “There may be some folks out there who are trying to spread misinformation,” which could be “incredibly damaging to the reputation of the city.” While the city needs to look at what happened, she said “this is not a matter of crumbling infrastructure and underfunding.”

The Ullrich plant is the city’s oldest and has undergone any number of technological improvements. More may be needed, but from Meszaros’ point of view, the biggest challenge to the utility is keeping enough seasoned professional staff on board.

Scott Sticker, a spokesman for the utility, told the Austin Monitor that Austin Water has 1,298 funded positions for this fiscal year and 138 vacancies, or more than 10 percent. Since the beginning of 2022, he said, 41 employees have left Austin Water. In 2021, 120 employees separated from the utility. In 2020, 107 employees left, he said.

In response to a question from Council’s newest member, Chito Vela, about compensation for customers, Meszaros said the utility was looking at giving those customers a credit for 2,000 gallons. According to Sticker, “Austin Water is reviewing possible credit options for customers after the recent boil-water notice. We provide utility services to approximately 244,000 account holders. We use a tiered rate structure, and an average residential customer pays $4.81 per 1,000 gallons.” Given that rate, a 2000-gallon credit might cost the utility more than $2.3 million.

Council Member Pio Renteria expressed reservations about the credit given that the utility will soon be asking for a rate hike and that the utility might need to increase wages in order to hold on to employees.

In 2018, Council passed a resolution supporting a requirement that future water rate changes be implemented through an independent hearings process. As he is leaving, Meszaros will not have to deal with that difficult process. However, he took the opportunity at Tuesday’s meeting to urge Council to reconsider that requirement, saying such a process would eat up utility executives’ time and cost the utility millions of dollars.

According to a timeline put together by the utility, crews were filling a basin with water to begin treatment on Saturday night. “A mixture of water and processed solids was added to ‘seed’ the basin. This is a high-turbidity mixture that is typically stopped after a few hours,” according to Austin Water. However, employees did not stop the seeding and it continued for most of the night. The plant recorded alarms and sample tests showing high turbidity. The high-turbidity water moved into filters, which became clogged, and as a result, highly turbid water entered underground storage tanks.

Finally, after supervisors were notified to look into the problem, they decided to shut the plant down and production was ramped up at the city’s two other treatment plants, Davis and Handcox, around 9:30 a.m. The Austin Water incident management team met with Texas Commission on Environmental Quality staff and were told at 5:15 p.m. that they must issue the boil-water notice. Staff prepared the notification language, got translations, and reviewed requirements with wholesale customers and elected officials, according to the utility’s timeline. They issued the boil notice to the public at 7:30 p.m. TCEQ requires those notices to be issued within 24 hours; Austin Water issued its notice within 12 hours of discovering the turbidity.

Since Council still had questions, Mayor Steve Adler said he would plan to use the first hour of Thursday’s Council meeting to talk more about Austin Water. Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter is bringing forward a resolution directing City Auditor Corrie Stokes to hire an outside firm to conduct a review of the utility’s handling of the situation. Council Member Vanessa Fuentes noted that there will be more discussion about the boil notice and events leading up to it at next Wednesday’s meeting of the Austin Water Oversight Committee, which she now chairs.

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