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Austin Water, which has issued three boil-water notices in four years, gets a new leader

An Austin Water employee prepares to fill bottles with drinking water at a water distribution site on Sunday in response to a citywide boil-water notice.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
An Austin Water employee prepares to fill bottles with drinking water at a distribution site in February in response to a citywide boil-water notice.

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Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk has chosen Shay Ralls Roalson to be the next director of Austin Water. Roalson, the first woman to hold the role, will replace the former leader of the city-owned water utility who resigned in February after an error at a treatment facility forced Austin residents to boil their water for three days.

Roalson, who has worked at Austin Water since April 2020, told KUT she is thrilled to lead the organization and help it become more resilient.

"We will continue to rise to face the unprecedented challenges of the future between climate change and cybersecurity — things we've never had to deal with as an industry before," she said.

Before she was named director, Roalson was Austin Water's assistant director of engineering services. Her team works on projects that improve the water system’s operations and performance. They also play a key role in executing the utility's $1.4 billion five-year capital improvement plan.

HiRes-Shay Ralls Roalson - AWD.jpeg
City of Austin
Shay Ralls Roalson has been named the new director of Austin Water.

“I am confident that her extensive knowledge of Austin Water’s services and programs will bring the leadership and vision we are seeking for the future of our water utility services,” Cronk said in a news release.

Roalson used to work for the design firm HDR Engineering, Inc. While there, she consulted with utilities in Texas, including Austin Water and San Antonio Water System.

When Roalson starts her new role on Jan. 1, she will be Austin Water’s first permanent director in about 11 months. Robert Goode has been the utility’s interim director since April. He replaced Greg Meszaros, who served as Austin Water’s director for 15 years and announced in February he would resign.

The resignation came days after the city faced its third boil-water notice in four years. The utility’s one million residential customers had to boil water for three days straight.

In a Feb. 11 memo to the Austin mayor and City Council, Meszaros said the incident weighed heavily on him.

“Residents are angry, frustrated, and have lost trust in us,” he wrote. “I share your frustration and am deeply disappointed that this event occurred.”

The boil-water notice was prompted by a mistake Austin Water staff made at the city’s oldest water treatment plant.

The employees added too much of a mixture containing calcium carbonate to a basin used to treat river water, which made the water cloudy. Meszaros told City Council at the time that even though there are alarms and protocols in place to address the cloudiness, or turbidity, they were not followed. He did note the event occurred after 20 employees left the utility in January.

An internal investigation completed in late March confirmed that employee error was the primary reason a boil-water notice needed to be issued.

Roalson said one of her goals as director is to ensure staff feel supported and know they can ask for help.

"And second [is] to communicate with our community and help our community understand what it is that we do every day and what the risks are and how we are managing those risks," she said.

Roalson thanked both of her predecessors — Goode and Meszaros — for their leadership.

"Austin Water is in a great position to move forward into the New Year with new leadership and new energy," she said, "and really tackle the problems that every water utility faces."

Those challenges include aging infrastructure as well as retaining and recruiting employees. To that end, Roalson said the utility, along with other city departments, is going to continue to assess staff pay.

"And make sure that we can keep up with the market and really compensate people for the incredible work that they do for us," she said.

Becky Fogel is the education reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at rfogel@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @beckyfogel.
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