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Austin's Funked-Up Water System Could Be Fully Flushed By The End Of The Week

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon

The zebra mussel stench plaguing residents' faucets should be gone in the next couple of days, the Austin Water Department said Monday.

The Ullrich Water Treatment Plant on the Colorado River is no longer producing the foul-smelling water, the utility's director, Greg Meszaros, said. “The taste and water index are down to zero, which is the lowest you can have.”

However, certain areas of South and Southeast Austin, as well as “low-circulation areas,” may continue to experience the problem as pipes continue to be flushed out, he said.

The water that comes from the treatment plant feeds through downtown first, so that water was flushed out first, Meszaros said. Areas farther south will take a longer time.

“Obviously, flushing water is water that isn’t being used for productive purposes [and] we don’t like to do that," he said, "but in cases like this it’s very important that we use flushing to clean the system."

The zebra mussels are a rapidly growing problem, Meszaros said; they're now infesting raw water piping, making it harder to clean.

“This particular event, I think, is more related to having a raw water system out of service, putting it back into service and having some of those mussels die," he said, creating a fishy smell.

Customers are being directed to call 311 with complaints. Despite an assurance that the smelly water would be a distant memory for residents, Meszaros said the service received more than 1,000 calls over the weekend.

"We apologize to some of our customers who have been experiencing poor water quality," he said. "We're doing all that we can to resolve these issues."

The utility is continuing to add powdered activated carbon to the water, but crews are relying on customer calls to flush out areas in need.

Meszaros said Austin Water would ultimately invest millions of dollars on “mechanical cleaning, marine diving contracts, televising [Austin Water’s] raw water system [and] additional chemicals to retard the growth of zebra mussels.”

“Clearly this episode indicates that they have infested the raw water piping,” Meszaros said. “That’s a new animal for us and that’s really the lesson learned. ... We’ve got to incorporate that into our thinking.”   

He said some tanks and pumping stations have been isolated to avoid moving the mussel water to areas like North Austin.

According to the utility, there have been no reported illnesses.

“We understand [that] even though we meet regulatory standards, we don’t meet our standards that we have for this water,” Meszaros said. He said staff would continue working until there are no more complaints.

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