Report Reveals The Challenges Austin Faced During Last Year's Citywide Water-Boil Order

Oct 31, 2019

Floodwaters shut down the Colorado River a year ago, bringing mud and silt to the treatment plants that supply Austin’s water. That aquatic sediment was too much for the plants to filter out efficiently. What followed will be remembered by anyone who lived here as “the week we all had to boil our water.”

Earlier in October, the City of Austin released a 346-page report looking at the city response to the breakdown in drinking water quality. It offers recommendations for how to better prepare for reservoirs getting too murky. Floating within the report there are also stories of how Austin’s government and institutions struggled to provide basic services during the boil-water mandate.

Hospitals, Schools And Jails Unprepared

The report highlights how vulnerable populations were especially at risk during the water emergency. Homebound Austinites, for example, were unable to pick up water supplies from city distribution points – but water procured by the county for delivery never made it to some people.

Large institutions that care for and house vulnerable people received special attention in the "resilience" section of the assessment.

According to the report, 13 hospitals were affected by the water-boil order. The report said the law requires hospitals to store 12 gallons of reserve water per hospital bed on site. Not all hospitals did.

Shortages were exacerbated by the fact the “majority” of local hospitals are unable to receive bulk water deliveries from tanker trucks.

Because no one could ensure boiled tap water would meet medical standards, the report says, “surgeries were cancelled during the first days” of the boil-water notice. The report recommends retrofitting hospitals “to be able to accept and store large quantities of water.”

The report also found jails were unprepared. Around 2,400 inmates were impacted by the water emergency, but “correctional facilities were unable to boil enough water for [them].” Officials had to use “trial and error” to get drinking water.

Rather than keep inmates in jails that can’t provide enough drinking water, the assessment suggests it would be better to move inmates to other regional lockups. But, it said, county correctional facilities don't have “a plan and method of quickly evacuating inmates.”

The assessment recommends developing a comprehensive evacuation plan that includes working with judges to “get inmates released who are pre-trial or are close to completing their sentences.”

The report also found public schools “do not prioritize disaster preparation” and that school leaders were “unwilling to utilize resources to assist them” during the water-boil notice. But it also suggested city officials did not fully appreciate the importance of keeping schools open during a disaster.

It found local schools struggled to simultaneously boil water and provide three meals a day to students. Closing schools could provide a “rippling impact," in which city workers needed for disaster response have to stay home to care for their children.

The assessment recommends better communication and disaster planning between schools and local governments.

A $10-Million Filter System

The bulk of the 161 recommendations outlined in the document deal broadly with improving communication, coordination and training to prepare for disasters. But there are some technical suggestions aimed at reducing the chances the city will again need to boil water.

“To prepare for future extreme turbidity events,” it says, “Austin Water will need to enhance treatment options to improve flexibility to operate during water quality upset episodes.”

The report suggests adding “polymer-based” treatment systems to all city treatment plants to more effectively filter out sediment. It estimates the systems will cost about $10 million to install.

A memo from Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros included in the report says the utility is “developing a scope of services to design and construct polymer feed systems at all three of our plants.”