Austin’s first boil water notice in 100 years tests local infrastructure

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In late October the city of Austin experienced an unprecedented weeklong boil-water notice.

Some engineering and water-treatment system experts said there was no realistic way to plan for it.

“This is a very rare event,” said Randall Charbeneau, a water environment engineer expert and vice-chancellor of research for the University of Texas System. “[This is] not a thing you plan a water-distribution system around.”

Not everyone agrees.

Mark Boyd, former president of the Dallas branch of the American Society of Civil Engineers, co-authored ASCE’s 2017 Report Card for Texas’ Infrastructure, which graded the state’s flood control a D and drinking water a D-plus.

Although Austin was not specifically graded, Boyd said incidents such as the recent boil-water notice “are a cautionary tale that our infrastructure is vulnerable unless we continue to invest and do the long-term planning.”

With extreme weather expected to become more common; demographers anticipating exponential population growth in Texas that will increase water demand; and climate change models predicting a hotter, drier future for Austin, long-term infrastructure improvements are more critical than ever.

The boil notice may serve as a catalyst for such projects in development at the city, county and state levels.

These projects include Proposition D, which was approved by city voters Nov. 6 and allocates $184 million to flood mitigation and water quality protection; Austin Water’s forthcoming 100-year water plan, called Water Forward, which is scheduled to be presented to City Council Nov. 29; the development of new flood plain maps by the city’s watershed protection department; and critical safety budgets, which Travis County commissioners approved Nov. 13 in response to a new rainfall-intensity study published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in September.

The NOAA study, called Atlas 14, uses data collected through 2017 by the National Weather Service to redefine 25-, 100- and 500-year storms.

What is now considered a 100-year storm—around 10 inches of rain in a 24-hour period—is likely to occur every 25 years, per Atlas 14, and a 500-year storm—around 13.5 inches in the same period—is likely closer to every 100 years.

A Watershed Week

Nearby Burnet and Llano counties experienced heavy rain in early October.

Runoff drained into the Colorado River system, overwhelming lakes Buchanan and LBJ and prompting the Lower Colorado River Authority to begin flood operations at its dams.

With water coursing downstream, the city of Austin’s water utility, Austin Water, struggled to filter sediment from its drinking water supply, which serves more than 1 million customers.

Brian Zabcik, a clean water advocate at Environment Texas, said this process was akin to filling a kitchen Brita pitcher with muddy water; it would take longer for the filter to process out the dirt.

After implementing emergency restrictions and a precautionary boil-water advisory Oct. 21, Austin Water announced a state-mandated notice Oct. 22 after water tested at the Ullrich Water Treatment Plant in West Austin failed to meet regulations for turbidity, or the relative cloudiness of a liquid.

At one point during the notice sediment levels in the water entering Austin’s treatment plans were 8,000 percent of what is typical.

One week after it began, the notice was lifted with approval from the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality.

Jonathan Yoder, deputy chief of the Centers for Disease Control’s Waterborne Disease Prevention Branch, said water treatment processes can seem abstract to laypeople.

“When there’s a challenge, it does make us question, ‘How do we know [the water]is safe?’” he said. “But I do think there are very good processes in place to make sure water is safe before we can lift a boil-water advisory.”

Immediate Response

Through mid-November, Austin Water performed systemwide operational checks and maintenance, and the city’s office of homeland security and emergency management, or HSEM, coordinated the recovery phase of the disaster, including requesting reimbursement of flood-related costs from state and federal agencies.

Whatever disaster funding may be accessed, it will not recoup all of the losses incurred during the notice, particularly by businesses that closed during the notice—including local restaurants and commercial car washes—or their employees, who lost out on work.

Austin Water returned to full treatment plant capacity and entered a conservation stage in mid-November, spokesperson Ginny Guerrero said.

Other post-incident priorities include the development of an After Action Report and Corrective Action Plan by HSEM and an in-depth review of Austin Water operations, per an Oct. 29 memo issued by City Manager Spencer Cronk.

HSEM and Austin Water do not have time frames for when these reviews will be completed, spokespeople for the agencies said. In the case of the Halloween floods in 2013 and 2015, after-action reports were presented three to four months after the event.

Planning Ahead

The boil notice occurred as a number of flood-mitigation and water-infrastructure projects stand on the cusp of adoption and highlighted their importance.

Extreme weather events have historically prompted increased investment and interest in water policy, Boyd said.

“When we have droughts, say in north Central Texas, you start seeing water plants being built to treat and use
wastewater for water purposes,” he said, adding that he thinks Austin’s notice will have a similar effect.

Austin falls within Flash Flood Alley—one of the most flood-prone regions on the continent, according to the Texas Water Resources Institute—and experiences two rainy seasons annually, between March and April and between September and October.

By the time the next rainy season arrives, some infrastructure improvements will be underway.

Early voting began the same day as the boil advisory. Proposition D, which will allow the city to fund drainage-improvement projects and acquire land in South Austin for water-quality protection, won nearly 84 percent of votes.

While unrelated to drinking water, the proposition will shape the city’s broader water infrastructure for years to come.

Austin Water’s Water Forward plan, which has been in development for four years, encourages conservation and recommends the use of alternative water supply sources—including treated wastewater, harvested rainwater and air conditioning condensate—for nondrinkable uses, such as toilets and watering lawns, in new commercial and multifamily buildings.

Austin Water will present the plan to City Council Nov. 29, with a vote likely early next year.

“That would be a really important part of the solution to avoid the problem [of the boil notice]because essentially that plan is going to change the way we use water in Austin so that drinking water is reserved for drinking and bathing and washing,” rather than expended on lower-priority uses, Zabcik said.

The city’s watershed protection department is working with consultants to develop new flood plain maps, taking into consideration the new Atlas 14 data.

“Due to this study our understanding of flood risk is changing in all of Central Texas, including in Austin,” Floodplain Administrator Kevin Shunk said.

These maps will then be shared with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which will use them to create flood insurance rate maps. Shunk said this process will likely take three years.

Travis County commissioners also reviewed the Atlas 14 data and voted Nov. 13 to adapt construction plans for the county’s 2017 bond projects in light of the study at a cost of $22 million.

“There will be costs associated with this either way,” Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said. “I would prefer the costs be financial rather than in lives.”

The ASCE, in its 2017 report on Texas’ infrastructure, found that it “lacks funding, proper maintenance and is poorly equipped to deal with environmental change as Texas continues to grow.”

While Boyd acknowledged that Austin is better off than the state at large, he said there is room for improvement, particularly when it comes to state financing of local and regional projects.

“We have the information. We have the emerging technologies. We have the means in civil engineers. … We just don’t control the purse strings.”

Additional reporting by Sally Grace Holtgrieve and Christopher Neely

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Emma Freer
Emma Freer began covering Central Austin for Community Impact Newspaper in 2017. Her reporting focuses include employment and economic development. She graduated from Columbia Journalism School in 2017.
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