New director Shay Ralls Roalson speaks on future of Austin Water

Last month, the City of Austin named a new director for Austin Water, the first woman to lead the department. 

Shay Ralls Roalson, Austin Water Director, joined FOX 7 Austin's Rebecca Thomas to discuss her new position.


REBECCA THOMAS: Shay, again, you're the first woman to ever lead Austin Water. What does that mean to you and also other women? 

SHAY RALLS ROALSON: You know, for so much of my career, it was really common for me to be the only woman at the table. And that changed dramatically when I got to Austin Water. Half of our executive team and half of the next level of managers below that are women. And I'm so proud to be a part of an organization that that promotes women into leadership positions. It's so important for Austin Water to be representative of the community that we serve, and that's just one way that we do that.

REBECCA THOMAS: Now, you're no stranger to Austin Water. You had been assistant director there since 2020. What did you learn during that time that you want to change now that you are in your new role?

SHAY RALLS ROALSON: You know what really drew me to Austin? It was three things. It was the staff. We have a mission driven organization that shows up 24/7 to provide excellent service to our customers. The second was our technical expertise. We have national level experts in every area in which we practice. And the third was innovation from field staff to executive management. Our organization is committed to growing and improving the way that we do our business. And so, what I bring from my experience is the ability to bring all of those people into the room as we grapple with the challenges of the future and identify where we're strong, where we complement each other, and then what are the gaps? Because the key to facing our future challenges is closing those gaps. And so that's what I'll do as director.

REBECCA THOMAS: Speaking of the future, I mean, we are a growing city. Austin experienced three city wide boil water notices during a four-year period, the most recent being last February. What needs to be done, or what has already been done to prevent that from happening? 

SHAY RALLS ROALSON: Austin Water is truly a learning organization. After each of those events, we did a deep dive, and we implemented improvements, and we are more robust and resilient than we have ever been. But we are entering a new era of uncertainty. Water systems across the country are experiencing service interruptions from unprecedented weather conditions. You know, I grew up in central Texas, and I remember running the hose in the backyard, and you never had to think about where water came from. And it's not like that anymore. Our community has partnered with us so successfully on water conservation, and now we're pointing that partnership toward emergency preparedness. We want you to understand the risks that we face so that you can help your family and your neighbors be prepared so that we can work as a community to face the future uncertainty that is our new normal.

REBECCA THOMAS: And one final question, it's hard to forget this one, February 2019 dead zebra mussels in the pipeline affected the taste and odor of the water delivered to customers. Has Austin Water been able to eradicate zebra mussels in those lines and what treatment options are available for that issue?

SHAY RALLS ROALSON: Well, unfortunately, once zebra mussels colonize a waterway or a lake, they are here to stay. So this is, again, part of our new normal. And we have built into our operations managing these zebra mussels. So we have treatment processes in our plants. We actually put divers in the water to scrape zebra mussels off of our infrastructure. Just last week, we lowered Lady Bird Lake by a foot so that we could clean zebra mussels off of Longhorn Dam. So this is just a great example of how we have innovated and strategized to adjust to our new normal and be ready to face the future.