As Austin residents scaled back their water use Thursday, on the fourth day of a citywide water boiling order, a city council member questioned the city’s tardiness in warning people of a probable shortage of treated water.
Ellen Troxclair said she was unaware of the magnitude of the city’s water treatment problem until she and other council members were notified by City Manager Spencer Cronk on Sunday night that he would announce a boil order Monday morning.
“They [city officials] knew by the end of last week when the water plant was slowing down that they had a major problem on their hands,” Troxclair said. “They either knew or should have known. At the very least it was a breakdown of the city’s communication system.”
The Texas Monitor contacted the offices of Mayor Steve Adler and Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros with questions about the timing and circumstances of the water boiling order. Neither responded by the time this story was posted.
The Texas Monitor also contacted local and state water experts, the Lower Colorado River Authority and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, but was unable to determine whether or not the city could have notified residents earlier.
Martha Ortero, spokeswoman for TCEQ, confirmed on Wednesday the agency was working with Austin Water on the treatment problem, but she had not answered specific questions about what was being done before this story published.
City officials have said nothing about whether inadequate or failed infrastructure at the treatment plants played any role in the treatment overload. Historic flooding was responsible, and recent history provided no guideposts for how to combat it, Meszaros told reporters earlier this week.
“We’ve been providing water for 100 years. This has never happened to us. It’s of a level we have never experienced in our utility, and it is a real struggle,” the water utility director said. “This is blowing our mind, too.”
Hugely increased silt levels from Llano River flooding have clogged screens and otherwise crippled the operations of Austin’s water treatment plants, Meszaros said.
On Wednesday morning, Adler and Meszaros issued statements predicting the order might be lifted by the end of this weekend. Meszaros said utility crews were working to close a gap between the 105 million gallons of water a day the utility’s three plants are currently able to treat and the 120 million gallons a day Austinites are using.
On its website, Austin Water asked that residents cut their water use by 15 to 20 percent during what it called an emergency. The city’s website asked that property owners suspend all outdoor water usage, including irrigation or filling pools, spas or fountains unless necessary to keep aquatic life alive.
“We understand that this has had a significant impact on the community,” Cronk said in a statement on the website. ”As a result, we want to ensure that the basic needs of residents are being met. The most important thing for the community to do is to conserve water and to boil water for drinking and cooking.”
The city on Thursday also began giving away bottled water, two cases of it for every car, at these locations:
- Dick Nichols Park, 8011 Beckett Road.
- Onion Creek Soccer Complex, 5600 E. William Cannon Drive.
- Roy G. Guerrero Park, 400 Grove Blvd.
- City of Austin warehouse, 7211 N. Interstate 35
- Walnut Creek Park, 2138 North Lamar Blvd.
- Kelly Reeves Athletic Complex, 10211 West Parmer Lane
- Circuit of the Americas, 9201 Circuit of the Americas Blvd.
The city announced the water stands will be open from 7a.m. to 7p.m. until the boil order is lifted.
Food inspectors for the Public Health Department have been working closely with Austin restaurants and food trailers to keep them open while maintaining sanitary water standards, director Stephanie Hayden said.
Meszaros said days of heavy rain in Austin have swelled the already flood-engorged Colorado River’s chain of six man-made Highland Lakes.
Metro Austin was expected to get another one to two inches of rain Wednesday, tapering off by about 8 p.m., Brett Williams, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in New Braunfels, said.
Rain isn’t expected again in greater Austin until the middle of next week, he said.
After a summer of Hill Country-wide drought, the area got five to 15 inches, or 300 to 400 percent more rain than usual in September, Williams said. In the past two weeks Central Texas has gotten another 10 to 15 inches of rain, “very, very much above normal for this time of year,” he said.
On Oct.16, the Llano River crested at 39.9 feet, the second highest crest in modern history. The record, 41.5 feet, came in the flood of June 1935 that washed away the Llano River bridge. The subsequent flooding downstream did so much damage in Austin that it set off planning for the dams that would form the Highland Lakes.
When the Llano crested last week, Gov. Greg Abbott declared Llano County and 17 others flood disaster areas and three days later added another 18 counties.
Silt from the Llano River flooding was 100 times normal by the time the water made its way to Austin for treatment, Meszaros said. So thick was the murk that it clogged screens and slowed treatment, requiring the use of reserve water to maintain pressure throughout the system necessary to fight fires, he said.
It was unclear whether, between the height of the Llano River flood and the overwhelming of Austin’s water treatment system, Austin residents could have been warned any earlier.
Troxclair said she thinks the flooding more than a week ago should have given the utility the necessary warning. She’s been a critic of Austin Water in the past, mostly for problems with meter reading and billing.
After the boil order went into effect, the city council took criticism for having spent at least $8,750 (and up to $5,000 in expenses) to embed an artist-in-residence to inspire creative thinking in the Watershed Protection Department. The department’s mission, as described by the city “is to protect lives, property and the environment of our community by reducing the impact of flood, erosion and water pollution.”
Troxclair, who is not running for re-election, said poor decisions like the artist-in-residence and the lack of foresight in dealing with the effects of flooding are just two more reasons why taxpayers ought to get an accounting of city departments’ performance, something they can do by supporting Proposition K on the Nov. 6 ballot.
“I think the frustration with the water utility is very high right now,” she said. “I think the public needed to be told about this sooner.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].