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Energy & Environment
Central Texas experienced historic winter weather the week of Feb. 14, with a stretch of days below freezing. Sleet followed snow followed freezing rain, leading to a breakdown of the electric grid and widespread power outages. Water reservoirs were depleted and frozen pipes burst, leaving some without service for days.

As Water Supply Dropped And Demand Surged During The Winter Storm, Austin Water Told People Not To Worry

People line up to have containers filled with drinking water at St. Elmo Brewing Company in South Austin. Breweries throughout the city distributed water to residents when many didn't have running water and the area was under a boil-water notice after the winter storm.
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
People line up to have containers filled with drinking water at St. Elmo Brewing Company in South Austin. Breweries throughout the city distributed water to residents when many didn't have running water and the area was under a boil-water notice after the winter storm.

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While Austin Water was telling the public not to worry about the water system during last month's winter storm, the city's water supply had begun falling to half its normal level, according to department employees.

The department admitted Wednesday that it waited to ask people to conserve water, even as the city's water supply dwindled.

“We were anxious about issuing some conservation [measures] and creating a panic on water,” Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros said. “You could look back and say that was the wrong move or the right move. I don’t know.”

The Austin City Council met with Austin Water on Wednesday as part of a regularly scheduled meeting for a committee that oversees the city’s municipal utilities. Council members used the meeting as an initial opportunity to question the providers about their response to power and water outages caused by a near statewide electric grid failure two weeks ago.

“I want to … dig down into understanding how we seemingly had a crisis in the blink of an eye,” Council Member Alison Alter, who represents Northwest Austin, said. “We were being told one day that we had no concerns about the water system whatsoever. [Then], to boil water and no supply.”

On the night of Tuesday, Feb. 16, and amid rumors that the city’s water supply would be compromised during the storm, Austin Water tried to calm customers via Twitter: “For Austin Water customers, there is NO need to boil your water. Our treatment plants are working well and we have adequate supply.”

But according to a timeline presented this week, at the same time the department tweeted this, the city was losing millions of gallons in water supply. While this was happening, the demand for water surged to more than double its typical levels — in part, department employees said, because Austin Water told people to let their faucets drip to protect against freezing pipes. The department said leaks, from both private and public pipes, likely also contributed to the high demand.

Hours later, at 10 p.m. on Feb. 16, homes in parts of Southwest Austin lost water. Just around midnight, the city’s water storage dropped to half its normal level. Meanwhile, people started using more and more water.

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“The demand did not decrease,” said Rick Coronado, assistant director of operations at Austin Water. He said the need for water was akin to what the city sees during summer peaks.

"That is an indicator that something in the system has gone wrong, meaning that there are leaks that we cannot identify and get to, or the private side experienced a large amount of water loss during that timeframe," Coronado said.

The next morning, the demand for water climbed even higher, and Austin Water told customers in parts of Southwest Austin — many of whom didn't have water — to boil their water before drinking it or cooking with it.

Austin Water also began requiring all customers to conserve water, now saying publicly that the city's water storage had significantly dropped.

Then in the early afternoon, the Ullrich Water Treatment Plant lost power. Because of icy and snowy road conditions, Austin Water said, it took technicians over an hour to get to the plant. It was back up and running by 5:30 p.m., but by then the city’s water supply was headed toward empty.

While this was going on, department employees said, they were wary of requiring people to start conserving water. When they did the same in 2018 after heavy rain, it backfired.

“The last time we issued mandatory conservation, water use soared,” Meszaros said. “It had the opposite effect.”

Just before 8:30 p.m. on Feb. 17, a day after telling customers the city had adequate water supply and there was no need to boil water, Austin Water sent out a citywide boil water notice.

Got a tip? Email Audrey McGlinchy at audrey@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.

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