Pflugerville officials seek to remedy city's water treatment failure

For a 10-month period, the city of Pflugerville had failed to adequately treat its water supply. City officials added that despite the treatment technique violations, the water had been and continues to be safe to drink. (Courtesy Fotolia)
For a 10-month period, the city of Pflugerville had failed to adequately treat its water supply. City officials added that despite the treatment technique violations, the water had been and continues to be safe to drink. (Courtesy Fotolia)

For a 10-month period, the city of Pflugerville had failed to adequately treat its water supply. City officials added that despite the treatment technique violations, the water had been and continues to be safe to drink. (Courtesy Fotolia)

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For nearly a year, the city of Pflugerville failed to meet minimum requirements set by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for its water treatment techniques—a mistake, city staff said, they are actively working to ensure never happens again.

City staff published an official notice regarding the water treatment technique violation on the city’s website Nov. 5 confirming that from October 2018 through September 2019—excluding December 2018 and April 2019—the city’s water supply was inadequately treated, but added that it had been and continues to be safe to drink. City officials said the water treatment plant's water membranes, which help process and clean the city's water supply, were damaged by the presence of zebra mussels—an invasive, freshwater species that multiply quickly and attach themselves to different underwater surfaces, posing a threat to water infrastructure.

Pflugerville staff first received official confirmation there was a problem with its water treatment techniques in October 2019, Pflugerville Communications Director Terri Toledo told Community Impact Newspaper on Nov. 6. City staff contacted the TCEQ in June 2019 with concerns regarding the city's reporting forms, Toledo said, before officially being made aware of treatment violations in October 2019.

Initial concerns with zebra mussels date to September 2018, when mussels were found at Pflugerville’s water intake tower for the Colorado River. Pflugerville City Council approved more than $51,000 in funds during a March 12 work session to clean the raw water intake. It was not until Aug. 12, 2019, that the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department confirmed in a news release the presence of zebra mussels at Lake Pflugerville.

TCEQ Media Relations Specialist Andrew Keese said in a Nov. 6 email to Community Impact Newspaper that a notice of Pflugerville’s treatment technique violations was issued to Mayor Victor Gonzales’ office, specifically citing a failure “to provide adequate surface water treatment for cryptosporidium” during the affected months.

Cryptosporidium, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is a parasite that causes the disease cryptosporidiosis. Symptoms include diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting and a fever.

“Cryptosporidiosis is a nationally notifiable disease, and diagnosed cases are required to be reported to local/state health departments by healthcare providers and laboratories,” Keese said in his email. “There have been no reported cases in the Pflugerville area during the affected time period.”

While no reported cases were identified in Pflugerville during the 10-month time period, several residents expressed their concerns about what measures the city is taking to ensure a similar situation does not happen again.

"This is a near miss to an actual health concern and needs to be taken seriously by our community and government officials," Pflugerville resident Matt Rodriguez said.
Toledo said that while there is no evidence to suggest cryptosporidium had been present in the city’s water supply during the affected time period, errors made in the city’s reports resulted in city staff not having data to confirm or deny the parasite’s presence.

The TCEQ issued 10 treatment technique violations for the 10-month affected time period along with 44 monitoring and reporting violations, Darren Strozewski of DCS Engineering confirmed at council's Nov. 12 meeting. DCS Engineering was hired in October 2019 by the city to analyze the city's water treatment process, as well as assisted in staff training and administered facility improvements. Those 44 violations, Strozewski added, will be included in a July 2020 TCEQ Consumer Confidence Report. As of Nov. 27, the city has not yet been fined by the TCEQ.

Two Pflugerville City Council members confirmed to Community Impact Newspaper that they had not received official notice of the failed water treatment prior to the city’s public notice Nov. 5. Council Member Mike Heath said council members had been told of an issue involving the city’s water treatment plant, but no specific information on the issue or cause of it had been provided.

In a Nov. 6 post on his City Council Facebook page, Council Member Rudy Metayer said the city's public works director had been fired as a result of the failed treatment. A job listing for the city’s public works director was posted online Nov. 7.

Gary Rose, director of operations at SouthWest Water Company, which oversees Windermere Utility Company, said in a Nov. 8 statement Windermere would notify customers about the violations.

Following Strozewski's presentation to council Nov. 12, Council Member Jeff Marsh said the water treatment failures were the result of "a bureaucratic issue" in prior staff failing to adequately monitor and test the city's water filtration system, adding that the city's responsiveness to the issue and fixing the processes is of utmost importance.

"There’s things that we can do in the future to make this a non-issue for councils 10, 20 years down the road," Marsh said.

Toledo said city staff have hired DCS Engineering to perform a treatment process analysis of the city’s water treatment plant and hired a third-party consultant to review and assess the city’s water and wastewater treatment procedures and facilities. Following the TCEQ’s review of the on-site processes, Toledo said staff have already repaired any reporting, programming and equipment related to the failure as well as have retrained staff for filing future reports.

City staff, Toledo said, are expanding and updating the city’s standard operating procedures for monitoring water and wastewater treatment issues. Staff are also currently working with DCS Engineering to develop a comprehensive plan related to zebra mussels at its surface water treatment plant, Toledo said—a plan, she added, that is under design.

Echoing similar sentiments shared by Marsh, City Manager Sereniah Breland said during council's Nov. 12 meeting that the city is actively trying to pursue new personnel who meet the standards and level the city needs to be operating at.

"It is the highest priority we have in the city right now, to protect public health and water," Breland said. "For years, it has been done wrong. We’re going to make it right.”
By Kelsey Thompson
Kelsey Thompson is the reporter for Round Rock, Pflugerville and Hutto, where her work focuses on education, city government and community development. Originally from upstate New York, Kelsey relocated to Austin after graduating from Syracuse University in May 2019.


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