Austin Water discusses what's being done to prevent another water emergency

Austin City Council members grilled Austin Water officials Wednesday about what’s being done to prevent another water emergency like the city-wide boil water notice last winter.

"We intend to make ourselves better with this," said Austin Water’s new director Shay Roalson.

Roalson was on the hot seat Wednesday afternoon at a meeting of the Austin Water Oversight Committee.

"Overall it was positive. We’re moving forward to build trust in our water utility," said District 10 Council Member Alison Alter.

That trust was eroded last February, when employees failed to properly respond to an issue at the Ullrich Treatment Plant, spurring a three-day-long boil water notice.

But this problem was one of five major incidents at Austin Water facilities in just four years. It led to the departure of former Director Greg Meszaros, and prompted an audit of the agency, which was completed in January.

"We embraced this external review," said Roalson.

Roalson says of the 53 recommendations made by the audit, about a quarter have been implemented—including prioritizing repairs and improvements at the Ullrich plant, committing to fix a maintenance backlog, and making improvements to water distribution.

"I’m not understanding where that accountability is down the road," said Alter.

Changes under way include putting managers in charge of each treatment plant, improving training, preparing for a water emergency, and trying to fill vacant positions.

"We don’t really have a recruiting problem, we have a retention problem," said Roalson.

Planned changes include capacity and stress testing of the Ullrich plant, and improvements to emergency communications.

But Austin Water rejected four recommendations, including the agency reporting directly to the city manager, and changes to human resources.

"It’s fine to disagree with the recommendation, but I think the underlying problem still needs to be acknowledged," said Alter.

The good news: the audit found Austin’s water system does have adequate capacity and treatment procedures, a system which withstood last month’s ice storm.

"I think we really saw in Mara the fruit of our efforts in the last few years," said Roalson.

Asked whether she’s confident the city won’t have another citywide boil notice, Alter said, "I think we’re doing everything we can to prepare. I’m not sure that I can control the weather and climate change to the point I can guarantee that it won’t happen."