Boil notice remains in place; City Council to call for external audit of Austin Water

Austin Water's boil-water notice remains in place Feb. 7. (Amy Denney/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin Water's boil-water notice remains in place Feb. 7. (Amy Denney/Community Impact Newspaper)

Austin Water's boil-water notice remains in place Feb. 7. (Amy Denney/Community Impact Newspaper)

A citywide boil-water notice stemming from an operator error at an Austin Water's treatment plant Feb. 5 has prompted City Council members to call for in-depth reviews of the water utility following a string of water quality and system issues in recent years.

City and utility officials said "oversights" in the water treatment process at the Ullrich Water Treatment Plant on Feb. 5 prompted Austin Water to issue a precautionary boil-water notice. The notice was a state-mandated response to a spike in turbidity, a quality benchmark measured by scattering light through particles in water that can signal the presence of potentially harmful microorganisms.

Desmond F. Lawler, a University of Texas engineering professor with water treatment expertise, said the boil notice was a necessary action despite the low probability that any dangerous particles ended up in Austin's water.

“The chances are remote at best that there was any significant problem with protozoa in this recent turbidity spike that happened at Ullrich. But the regulations are there for that reason and they have to be taken seriously," Lawler said.

Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros said the issue was first identified around 8 a.m. Feb. 5 and may have affected the water flowing to the public for about 30 minutes. The utility announced its boil-water notice shortly after 8 p.m. Feb. 5. Meszaros said Austin Water has never experienced this particular issue before and that the utility had "many controls in place" to avoid such an event.

City Manager Spencer Cronk committed that the city will be correcting any problems at the utility.

“This will be addressed, and you can be assured that this will not happen again," he said.

The boil-water notice remains in place Feb. 7 and cannot be lifted without quality testing called for by state code. Austin must submit proof that its distribution systems meet several quality requirements to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, a process city officials have said they hope will be completed by late Feb. 8. However, the commission said in the late afternoon Feb. 7 that the Feb. 8 timeline is not confirmed. On Feb. 7 officials lifted the conservation requirement of the order.

"TCEQ does not have enough information to determine when the city of Austin will be able to rescind their boil-water notice," spokesperson Gary Rasp said in an email.

Austin Water did not respond to several questions about the treatment issue or its response as of publication time.

Officials review

On Feb. 6, Council Members Paige Ellis and Natasha Harper-Madison said they both hoped to see a special council meeting on Austin Water called in the coming days. Council is not scheduled for a full voting session until next week, and a special meeting was not called as of press time. And District 2 Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, chair of council's Austin Water Oversight Committee, said she now plans to reserve time at that body's Feb. 26 meeting to "continue the conversation on the investigation and a top-to-bottom review of our water infrastructure."

“I take the recent system failure very seriously. As the newly appointed chair of the Austin Water Oversight Committee, I am focused on accountability and solutions. Austinites deserve better," Fuentes said in a statement.

Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter, who also sits on the oversight committee, is calling for an external audit of Austin Water and the city's "pattern of water quality challenges" in response to this weekend's incident. Alter said she aims to initiate the review at council's Feb. 17 meeting with a formal resolution that is now co-sponsored by Fuentes, Ellis and Council Members Kathie Tovo, Leslie Pool and Mackenzie Kelly.

"The external audit will review the events of this week and the pattern of boil-water situations we’ve experienced in recent years. This review will allow us to identify necessary changes to Austin Water's protocols, investments and operations," Alter said in a statement. "Our community deserves better. Ultimately, this audit will examine what needs to be done to ensure something like this never happens again."

In a phone conversation, Tovo said Austin's three recent boil notices all appear to stem from separate causes and that a public investigation is necessary to inform city residents and nail down how the utility might avoid further incidents.

“It is important to understand, and I think the audit will help us identify areas of opportunity and areas that may need improvement," Tovo said.

Rasp said the TCEQ will continue to review the incident and assist Austin as needed and noted that the two previous boil notices—one in 2018 brought on by local flooding and one in 2021 related to Winter Storm Uri—were caused by natural factors rather than a process error.

Despite the less than five-year time frame between the incidents, Lawler said the repeated system issues do not necessarily point to an operational trend at Austin Water. While he credited some of its response to the two prior "unusual" situations, he said this February's failure is more alarming.

"I don’t see a pattern at all. And this one to me is a much greater concern than the other ones," he said. "Not because the water quality is a bigger concern, but because it was operational, and I just think that the operators ... didn’t do their job."
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.