One year after boil-water notice, Austin Water implementing changes in tech and process

During Austin's boil water notice, Austin Water struggled to filter the city's drinking water supply because of the high level of sediment entering the Colorado River.

During Austin's boil water notice, Austin Water struggled to filter the city's drinking water supply because of the high level of sediment entering the Colorado River.

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Infrastructure Improvements
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Polymer feed systems
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Austin Water timeline

One year ago, the city of Austin was placed under a weeklong boil water notice due to water-quality issues in the Colorado River caused by flooding locally and upstream.


Floodwaters from storms upstream reached Lake Travis on Oct. 9, 2018. Additional weeks of local rain and flooding led to a boil-water notice being issued Oct. 22-28 by Austin Water—the city of Austin’s water utility—due to the strain high levels of sediment in the water source was putting on water treatment plants. 


According to Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros, what made last fall’s event unique was a combination of the turbidity—or measure of cloudiness in the water caused by sediment and other compounds—in the Colorado River and the length of time it stayed there.


“During most high-turbidity events, [turbidity] spikes and you go through that a couple of days, then business starts to settle down, and customers don’t really know anything happened,” Meszaros told Community Impact Newspaper in October 2019. “Last year it spiked so much higher and stayed high for so much longer a period that we just couldn’t get through it without the need to take public steps and to ask [the public] for help.”


After evaluating the event and its aftermath for 11 months, Austin Water released a memo Oct. 2 with a report and corrective action plan developed by a third-party agency that reviewed the 2018 crisis and offered more than 160 actions the city and Austin Water could take to better operate in the future.


Austin Water also released its own review of the 2018 event Oct. 2.


Throughout 2019, Meszaros said his staff have already institutionalized some of the knowledge learned and have been able to implement some new practices.


“We’re confident that the recommendations that we’re moving forward on are going to significantly reduce the risk should an event like that repeat and us having to issue a boil water notice,” Meszaros said.


At the heart of preventive recommendations are infrastructure improvements that include installing systems that can add polymers to water at treatment plants, he said.


With a price tag of about $10 million, Meszaros said new polymer systems are currently being studied and designed for all three of Austin Water’s treatment plants. He said he hopes the first system will be installed at Ullrich Water Treatment Plant—the utility’s largest plant—in the first half of 2020.


Austin Water this year has already installed new zeta-potential meters at treatment plants. The meters will allow Austin Water to better understand what chemicals could be used to help improve water quality during future events.


Many of the other recommendations streamline basic Austin Water operations and cover aspects of emergency response. These include suggestions on how the city’s emergency management division can better provide resources to the public and how emergency responders can better communicate with populations who do not speak English.


With the flooding last year, followed by an extremely hot and dry summer in 2019, Meszaros said water issues continue to be “top-of-mind” in the community. 


“This was a historic event, and a lesson of how climate change risks are impacting our community,” he said. “Changing climate is bringing water issues across the nation with increased risk of extreme weather. We have to be ready for that future.”

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