Following internal investigation, officials task UT with broader audit of Austin Water

The audit will review all city water system operations, including several recent boil-water notices. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)
The audit will review all city water system operations, including several recent boil-water notices. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)

The audit will review all city water system operations, including several recent boil-water notices. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)

An external audit of Austin Water called for in the wake of February's citywide boil-water notice is being handed off to The University of Texas.

City Council's Audit and Finance Committee voted 3-0-1 March 30 in favor of a plan to work with UT on the audit through an interlocal agreement between the city and university. The wide-ranging audit was proposed by Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter in response to the utility's water treatment breakdown and will also dive into previous boil-water incidents as well as Austin Water policies, communication, staffing and transparency.

While City Auditor Corrie Stokes said her office would typically take charge of a city utility audit, the review is being handled by a third party given staffing shortages in her office. Stokes said a final agreement with UT could take one to two months to finalize, and the full audit could then stretch through the rest of the year.

"This is a really large project. It’s not a two- or three-month project; it is a big project. That said, I think that we could work with whoever we contract with to come up with maybe a phased approach or certain deliverables and kind of have some information sooner rather than later," Stokes said.

Stokes added that she hopes the audit will cost somewhere between a low end of $250,000 and a high end of $1 million. Officials previously requested that audit funding be pulled from Austin Water's budget.


While the full council voted unanimously in favor of a third-party review last month, the audit committee was slightly split on moving the process along with UT at its March meeting. District 2 Council Member Vanessa Fuentes abstained from the committee's vote to proceed under the city-university agreement and said she preferred an accelerated public solicitation of outside experts that is allowed in an emergency context.

“Knowing just how critical Ullrich water plant is, knowing how important it is for us to have a reliable utility, I do think it falls within that [emergency] parameter," Fuentes said. "I would like it to be an open solicitation bringing on experts with necessary insight needed for us to take a look at and investigate our utility, especially at Ullrich water plant, to better understand what is needed. I think that type of expertise matters.”

Fellow committee members said they favored their selected approach given questions about the process details, projected timeline and concerns about possible conflicts of interest.

Alter, the committee's chair, also noted that the voting split did not reflect any differing opinions on the urgency of the review.

“I think we have absolute, full agreement on this committee that we need to be watching out for the quality of our services," Alter said. "This is a process question, and it is not a question about one’s commitment for a full investigation or for the health and safety of our water."

Council's consideration of Austin Water issues will continue at the March 31 meeting of its Austin Water Oversight Committee. Officials will discuss the utility's own investigation of the February boil notice and the choice between issuing a "goodwill" billing credit to customers or reinvesting millions into the Austin Water budget for staffing and operations.
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.