Austin Water explains the now 'official' and 'mandatory' boil water notice

Austin Water is still hoping to wrap this boil water notice up by the weekend.

Unless the rain we’re getting stirs up the river again.

Wednesday afternoon Austin Water gave FOX 7 a tour of the operations center they have set up at the Austin Water headquarters downtown.  They have engineers working to monitor the situation and they're video-conferencing with the 3 water treatment plants.

Director Greg Meszaros gave us an update on the crisis (poor water quality from last week's flooding.)

He says the raw turbidity -- or clarity -- of the Colorado River improved again overnight.  One plant dropped below 100 turbidity units which he says is promising.

But something else happened Tuesday that was not good.  Drinking water quality at one of the plants hit around a "5" which violates the state's standards for drinking water so that triggered issuing an "official" boil water notice, this one labeled "mandatory."

Meszaros says it's something they were thinking could happen when they issued the precautionary notice. "And sure enough, two days later, day and a half later, we did have a turbidity excursion at our Ullrich Treatment plant where we went over the regulatory standard for turbidity so that worked in the sense that we wanted that boil water notice in place before that happened to be as protective as possible.  So it isn't that necessarily things got worse, we saw that as a likely risk that we were managing and that's what turned out to have happened," Meszaros said.

Meszaros pointed out the violation at Ullrich was a brief spike and it went right back down.

Not to confuse anyone, the boil water notice is still very much in effect.

This morning we spoke with a water expert outside of the City of Austin just to shed some light on what we've been dealing with this week.

A term Austin Water customers have been hearing over and over for the past 3 days: turbidity.  What is that? "It's measure of the clarity.  And it is dependent on the amount of material that's suspended within the liquid so you start having sand particles and silts," said Stefan Shuster, a hydrologist with Aqua Strategies in Austin.

Schuster has served on the city's Water Resource Planning Task Force.  He spoke with Fox 7 Austin by phone on Wednesday about Austin's boil water notice and the vulnerability the water utility has being dependent on the a single-source of water...the Colorado River.

"We're looking at developing an aqua storage and recovery system where we basically take excess surface water that's already encompassed in our water right and stored underground for times like this where we could then draw that water that's been stored.  We certainly should be looking at the options of groundwater," Schuster said.  

Schuster says it's not uncommon for a city this size to have a single-source this day in age but that's changing. Schuster says we should all be asking questions about this...about the alert process and about how the city prepared.

"We don't know how much precautions the city took in terms of putting additional storage.  Knowing ahead of time that there was going to be a flood with turbid water coming down the river, what did we do to shore up storage?" Schuster said.

As for the city's hope to end the boil water notice by the weekend, Schuster thinks it is do-able.

"As long as we have good weather and we don't have any additional inflows beyond the normal range I think we're going to get this under control fairly quickly," he said.

Bottom line -- keep boiling.  

"Boiling water kills those bacteria so it basically does what the chemical treatment from the city process does in a mechanical way, you raise the temperature above 140 degrees for over 3 minutes by boiling the water," Schuster said.