Austin Energy is working to step up its tree trimming program after past city policies led to gradual overgrowth across the utility's power system and have set back its vegetation management goals.

Those findings were shared in a new city audit report released in September that was commissioned by City Council in the wake of Winter Storm Mara back in February. Looking ahead, auditors suggested creating a new long-term plan for tree maintenance and improving how the power utility tracks its trimming activities.

The context

According to city auditors, Austin took a step back on vegetation management following 2006 City Council direction to cut back AE's tree trimming to levels well below industry standards. That move came in response to certain neighborhoods' concerns about the city's practices at the time.

Officials asked to step that work back up in 2019 and have since boosted funded related to the management program, but setbacks were still reported.

"[T]rimming less than industry standards for many years contributed to overgrowth, increased workloads, and has made it harder for AE to meet their trim goals," auditors wrote.
Austin Energy's tree trimming standards have changed over the years. (Courtesy city of Austin)
Austin Energy's tree trimming standards have changed over the years. (Courtesy city of Austin)
AE's current vegetation management system calls for trees to be trimmed on a seven-year cycle, but given the utility's current resources it's fallen well below those benchmarks. Austin's seven-year cycle is also longer than the five-year industry standard and practices in comparable cities.
Auditors said AE would have to annually trim more than 14% of the trees surrounding major circuits on Austin's distribution power lines in order to stick to its seven-year plans. From 2018-20, auditors said AE only covered 4.3% of the circuits each year. In 2021 and 2022 combined, the utility trimmed around 6.4% of the circuits.

AE has a system in place for prioritizing circuits that could affect the most customers or are prone to wildfire risks, but utility officials said challenges remain with each line that crews address.

“Every circuit we have out there is the hardest circuit because it’s had 13 years of overgrowth on it. So even if it’s our shortest, which is a third of a mile, that’s still a beast to get back to standard," said Elton Richards, AE's vice president of electric system field operations, during a Sept. 27 council briefing.

Beyond the backlog in trimming work that's stacked up over the past decade-plus, auditors also said the work can take months to complete given factors, such as an ongoing worker shortage, the sensitivity of certain jobs given environmental concerns and opposition from residents, that can delay operations.

Four new tree trimming contractors were hired this year to try and meet the city's goals, but auditors said it still remains to be seen how helpful that support ends up being. Those crews will begin their work later this fall.

Despite challenges with bringing on new contractors—thanks in part to pay concerns tied to Austin's rising unaffordability—AE General Manager Bob Kahn said the utility expects to be up-to-date on its tree trimming work by 2028.

“As you know, we’re playing catch-up. Thirteen years at not meeting industry standards is kind of difficult to catch up on, but by ‘28 we’ll be fully caught up, and then we’ll go on our five-year cycle," he said. "We are trimming trees; as we stand here today, we have about 50 or 60 crews out there."

Agreeing with statements made by former city and utility management in the midst of this year's winter storm recovery, AE officials also reiterated that "more aggressive" trimming wouldn't have prevented much of the damage experienced during the weather event.

“I think the vegetation management plan is a solid plan, but it will never take away the risk because you still have large trees, or even the ones that are outside the trim cycle that could come back in," Richards said.

What's next

Based on the audit's suggestions, AE staff plan to roll out new vegetation management plans to better maintain Austin's tree canopy.

In response to the recent review, city management said that short, medium- and long-term plans will be put into place to address trimming around AE's priority circuits and power lines. Regular staff meetings and public reporting on the plan are also expected.

“I was surprised to hear that this goes all the way back to 2006. And you’re absolutely right, that’s a long time to try to play catch-up. But I am glad that you have a plan," said Council Member Mackenzie Kelly, who sponsored the recent audit.

During the course of auditors' analysis, they also found issues with AE's vegetation management data and recommended upgrading the utility's tracking system to ensure results are accurately reported. For example, the vast majority of trimming jobs in AE's database—90% of a sample reviewed by auditors—were found to have inconsistencies between the paper and digital copies of work reports.

City management said that AE staff will adjust how reports are taken in and train all employees to properly log the information. In the future, AE could also move to replace the software it uses to maintain its tree trimming information.