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Austin City Council members ask for an independent audit of the city's water utility

An Austin Water employee fills a bottle with drinking water at a distribution site on Sunday amid the boil-water notice.
Gabriel C. Pérez
An Austin Water employee fills a bottle with water at a distribution site after a warning was issued that tap water may be unsafe to drink.

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Austin City Council members on Thursday voted to hire a third party to investigate the management and operations of the city’s public water utility.

The unanimous vote comes nearly two weeks after Austin Water issued a notice advising the city’s residents to boil their water before drinking or cooking with it.

The notice stayed in place for three days. The utility has said employee error compromised the quality of the city’s water supply, prompting the boil-water notice.

“Our community expects and deserves better,” Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter, who initially asked for the audit, said. “We need more substantive answers from the utility about what happened. This audit will allow us to look at our water utility issues more systemically and take actions to prevent further disruptions.”

The third-party investigation will be wide-reaching; council members have asked city staff to hire a company that will consider the cause and responses to recent boil-water notices, including the one issued last year during the deadly winter freeze, plus how well the utility is prepared for emergency situations and how its management stacks up against other utilities in the country.

It’s not yet clear what an audit like this will cost or when it will be complete.

Austin Water is working on its own internal audit, which Director Greg Meszaros told council members Tuesday should be complete in about a week. Meszaros resigned last week, writing in his departure letter that he “took full responsibility for any shortcomings” at the public utility during the recent boil water notice.

According to the utility, residents were asked to boil their water two weeks ago after employees had added too much of a mixture containing calcium carbonate to a basin at the city’s oldest and largest water treatment plant, the Ullrich Plant.

That additional mixture made the water cloudier than usual, which triggered federal and state regulations requiring that the city have residents boil the water to ensure it was safe to drink.

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Audrey McGlinchy is KUT's housing reporter. She focuses on affordable housing solutions, renters’ rights and the battles over zoning. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.
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