News Feature | December 3, 2018

Shedding Light On Austin's Boil-Water Notice

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Water delivery in Austin, TX, was challenged by historic flooding in October, prompting an unusual turn of events for a major city.

“Officials in Austin, Texas, issued a citywide boil-water ordinance and urged residents to cut consumption as the city [struggled] to treat water dirtied by [the] flooding,” NBC News reported.

“It’s rare for a U.S. city the size of Austin to have a citywide boil water notice, and water officials are now considering whether they should have acted differently,” The Austin American-Statesman reported.

The newspaper is piecing together exactly what happened to complicate water service. Operations reports from the city’s water treatment plants obtained by the newspaper through a Texas Public Information Act request build a narrative of what occurred.

“The reports show the plants caught in increasing turmoil, as high turbidity flummoxed treatment capabilities, one system after another broke, and workers flooded parts of the plants while washing filters constantly. Plant employees also relied on nonstop experimentation to find chemical blends that would remove particles from water that saw its composition change hourly,” the report stated.

Utility administrators have spoken to the public about what happened.

“We came pretty close to working this event without having to do a boil water notice,” Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros stated, per The Statesman. “It just didn’t fully come together.”

He reflected on what could have been done differently.

“I would have called for stronger water (usage) reductions earlier,” Meszaros said. “We started appealing for water reductions Sunday afternoon (Oct. 21). ... One of the changes we’re going to make in the future is, if we see turbidity starting to climb, we would immediately go into a water reduction mode.”

At the same time, he praised Austin’s utility workers for how they responded to the difficult circumstances. He noted that many workers pulled all-night shifts.

“I was never so proud of our utility as I was during those days,” he said.