Austin boil-water notice: Key takeaways from outgoing Austin Water director's City Council briefing

Outgoing Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros appeared before City Council on Feb. 15 for a discussion of the recent citywide boil water notice. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)
Outgoing Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros appeared before City Council on Feb. 15 for a discussion of the recent citywide boil water notice. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)

Outgoing Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros appeared before City Council on Feb. 15 for a discussion of the recent citywide boil water notice. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)

Outgoing Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros appeared before City Council on Feb. 15 to answer lingering questions about the agency's response to the early February operational errors that left Austin in its third citywide boil-water notice in recent years.

The situation prompted Meszaros' resignation late last week. Austin Water is also likely to be audited by an independent investigator at the request of council while it continues its own internal analysis and begins making corrections to processes linked to water quality concerns that began Feb. 4.

In a statement following the council briefing, the agency said it has added new safeguards to prevent issues similar to those at its Ullrich Water Treatment Plant this month. And Meszaros, who leaves Austin Water after 15 years at its helm, expressed frustration and regret that city residents and businesses were put through yet another water-related ordeal.

The citywide boil notice came about as a result of rising turbidity—a measure of water clarity that can signal harmful organisms—at Ullrich late Feb. 4 into Feb. 5. Meszaros and Austin Water have said since last week that the issue was a result of operator errors rather than actual contamination, and the notice was rolled out as a precaution and due to state regulations rather than any danger in Austin's drinking water.

“This was really about our operations of the plant. How we communicate, how we make decisions, how we respond to alarms, how we escalate. Those are all within our control, and ... ultimately preventable," Meszaros told council. "I’m just profoundly sorry that we had this event."

Treatment process breakdown

While Meszaros said employee failures likely led to the turbidity spike, both he and council said the purpose of their February hearing was not to vilify any staff at Ullrich. Meszaros also said while process mistakes were likely made, the issues did not stem from total carelessness at the hands of treatment plant operators.

“There is no evidence of what I would describe as gross negligence by our employees. And what I mean by that is nothing where employees were sleeping on duty, where they left the plant, where they were fabricating data," he said.

The turbidity spike stemmed from issues in a single water treatment basin at Ullrich. As of Feb. 4 at 10 p.m., Meszaros said turbidity levels at Ullrich's basin six were "very, very low" and within a normal range. That basin was "starting to have some problems" as of 2 a.m. Feb. 5, he said, before turbidity reached a level that was "totally out of control" as of 6 a.m.

The cloudier water then hit filters in the system meant to sift out heavier particles, eventually breaking through and spilling into the city's drinking water supply. Meszaros said the breakdown at basin six is at the "heart" of Austin Water's investigation.

Meszaros and Rick Coronado, Austin Water's assistant director of operations, said alarms that would have alerted employees to the turbidity spike were working properly at the time of the issue. However, the reason that there was no response to those audio and visual alerts has yet to be determined.

“We don’t entirely understand why some of that wasn’t done or at least why there wasn’t more call for help, why that plant staff shift thought they could handle it on their own," Meszaros said.

He also credited regulators at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for its collaboration with the city utility. He said the two agencies worked together to determine whether a more localized boil notice was possible—it was not—before he eventually called for one citywide.

"I made the decision. I said, ‘Let’s do a citywide boil-water notice,'" he said. "That’s the most protective of the whole city; it’s going to allow us to do it in the most reasonable time without further delay, and I made that decision, and that’s what we did."

Infrastructure, staffing questions

While Austin has experienced several boil notices in the past four years, Meszaros contended they were not linked by utility procedures. Possible ties could relate to staffing and struggles at Ullrich itself, which he said is Austin Water's largest and most strategically located plant.

"When Ullrich is wobbly, the system is going to be wobbly," he said. "We identified Ullrich as a focal point a couple years ago at least and have really been trying to focus on strengthening Ullrich. And not just strengthening infrastructure. I think that it is fundamentally also strengthening the culture and the workforce and the training across the board."

Austin Water is facing a growing issue of staff attrition with long-tenured employees leaving at a faster pace and the department's overall vacancies rising. The utility confirmed 138 of its 1,298 budgeted positions—10.63%—are unfilled.

"In January, 20 employees left Austin Water. That’s the most we’ve ever had leave in one month," Meszaros said. "Our experience is being diluted. We used to turn around where we’d have a lot of operators with 20 years' experience, 25 years' experience. Those days are gone. We just are seeing persistent turnover."

With those concerns identified, Meszaros also said shortfalls at Austin Water are not the result of city budgeting practices or a lack of resources.

“In my 15 years as director, whenever we have proposed a rate increase or needed to fund a project ... in the end, we got the support we needed," he said. "There’s a lot of need in our utility, and there’s a growing risk from a lot of different threats. Our capital program is expanding; it’s going to expand, and that will continue into the future. But I have never experienced that the system was starved for funding.”

Other takeaways

In acknowledging the ongoing frustration of the community, Meszaros also said utility customers could be in line for some relief, although final details have yet to be hashed out with city management.

“We are evaluating how we could give credit to customers for this event," he said. "There’s a big opportunity for us to acknowledge that and give a credit to customers. ... A 2,000-gallon credit for us would be very manageable."

District 6 Council Member Mackenzie Kelly also questioned him on the utility's response to Senate Bill 3 passed last year after Winter Storm Uri. That new law requires local utilities to report on a pair of preparedness items, Meszaros said.

To address the first, Austin Water sent reports to its power providers of which of its systems are deemed "critical" in case of outages. The second, the submission of a preparedness plan to the TCEQ, is "on course" to meet a March 1 deadline, he said.

Meszaros and city officials also pushed back on reports of false information related to the boil notice. Those include recent calls to a radio program claiming to come from suspended Austin Water employees with inside knowledge of the event. Meszaros said he doubted the authenticity of the calls, and District 8 Council Member Paige Ellis, who called for the Feb. 15 hearing, spoke against some points recently raised in public discussions.

"I want people to be on the lookout that there might be folks out there willfully trying to spread misinformation and saying this is a lack of funding and infrastructure capabilities," Ellis said. "There are things that need to be looked at that need to be resolved, but this particular issue is not a matter of crumbling infrastructure and underfunding.”
By Ben Thompson

Austin City Hall Reporter

Ben joined Community Impact Newspaper in January 2019 after graduating with a degree in journalism from Northeastern University in Boston. He spent more than two years reporting on Montgomery County and The Woodlands area before moving to Austin in 2021 to cover City Hall and other news throughout the city. Contact Ben with questions, tips or feedback at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @BThompson_CI.