Austin first issued a boil-water notice Feb. 17. The winter storms that forced Austin Energy to put as many 220,000 customers in the dark also led to water main breaks, burst pipes, increased water use and the shutdown of Austin’s Ullrich Water Treatment Plant—the city’s largest.
During a Feb. 18 press conferences, Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros said the compounding issues essentially drained the city’s water reserves—roughly 100 million gallons—which are crucial in maintaining a safe level of pressure. It also meant the city had to shut down segments of its water distribution systems to find and address leaks. Meszaros said the shutdown left “many tens of thousands” of Austinites and critical infrastructure, such as some hospitals and medical treatments plants, with little or no water.
Meszaros said his department’s priority is restoring water to hospitals and medical centers, and he warned Austinites to prepare for an extended period of water outages and water boil notices, during a Feb. 18 press conference.
“It's going to be a multiday process to restore pressure and service, and then clear the system for use," Meszaros said. “For customers who don’t have water, it's better to plan for worse conditions—days without water, rather than hours. We would encourage customers to take whatever steps they can to try to work through a multiday outage.”
Meszaros also told customers they can stay updated through the department’s website and media reports. However, some residents have expressed concerns about the lines of communication.
Balcones Village resident Ray Harris said he and his neighbors have not had water since noon Feb. 17, and although he has reached out to report the outage, he has not received an update.
“We had good water pressure at 10 o'clock in the morning, and two hours later, it was gone,” Harris said Feb. 18. “I can't imagine that that's from anything other than a water main break, ... but we have not received any acknowledgement [from Austin Water].”
Harris said he called Austin Water multiple times but was put on hold each time for up to 30 minutes before being disconnected. Similarly, a neighbor submitted a work ticket with the city but never received a confirmation.
Harris said he has seen overall updates from Austin Water since his outage. He has heard updates about water outages in Southwest Austin and Lost Creek and about the boil water notice for the city as a whole. Still, he said he does not know if the issue in Northwest Austin is on Austin Water’s radar.
“I get that their No. 1 priority has to be the pumping station and the treatment station for the entire system, and No. 2 has to be hospitals and essential buildings,” he said. “I don’t expect us to be the only thing they look into. The only thing I want is acknowledgement that Austin Water got our message or that a ticket is open for the problem.”
Meszaros said water pressure throughout the city is at critical levels. He said the focus, beyond hospitals, will be the Central Austin system, as everything else is built off the central system. Meszaros clarified that Austin Water does not know for sure whether the water people are able to get is contaminated; however, with pressure low and some leaks in the system, it is possible that groundwater has contaminated pipes, so it is safest for everyone to boil water before consumption.