After seven days of requiring residents in America's 11th largest city to boil water and warning them of a potential shortage without reduced consumption, Austin Water officially lifted its boil water notice Sunday afternoon. The notice went into effect following heavy rain and flooding in Central Texas. The severe weather caused elevated levels of silt and debris in the water supply and treatment systems could not keep up.
The city warned residents that “immediate action” was necessary to avoid running out of water. Customers were asked to stop outside water use, such as watering their lawns or washing cars, and were encouraged to limit indoor use as much as possible.
On Tuesday, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality determined that the turbidity — or the water’s cloudiness — exceeded standards. Austin Water was officially required by TCEQ regulations to issue a boil water notice, a precaution the utility had already taken.
Mary Jo Kirisits, an engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said Austin Water was right to issue a boil water notice when they did. She said the intensity and duration of recent storms contributed to increased sediment levels entering the city’s water treatment plants.
“These plants were designed to handle a certain, reasonable range of water quality, but the quality of the water entering these plants in the last several days represents an extreme event,” said Kirisits, an expert in drinking water treatment. “This is a situation that we do not see very often, where the concentration of particles entering the plant is much higher than usual for multiple days.”
By Thursday, Mayor Steve Adler signed a formal disaster declaration for the city, which formalizes collaboration among local and regional entities. Adler tweeted that he issued the declaration “to help with reimbursement & procurement.”
That includes reimbursement for any costs incurred as a result of the emergency, such as overtime pay for first responders, according to the Travis County Judge's office. Costs would be recouped from the state and federal level. The declaration will continue for one week from Oct. 25, unless it is renewed by the Austin City Council. The disaster declaration will still continue even when the boil water notice is lifted, according to Angel Flores, a spokesman for the city.
"It is up to the federal government whether we qualify for reimbursement," Flores said. "At this time, it is too early to tell how much we may be reimbursed."
In the same declaration, Adler also activated the City of Austin Emergency Operations Plan. Activation of the plan brings all necessary parties under one roof at the Combined Transportation and Emergency Communications Center on Old Manor Road. This allows city, state and federal officials to better coordinate emergency response efforts.
During the boil water notice, the City of Austin set up water distribution centers for people unable to boil water, those who needed it for work and those with special needs. Sites included Dick Nichols Park, the Onion Creek Soccer Complex, Circuit of The Americas and Walnut Creek Park, among other locations.
With no rain in the immediate forecast, the city’s water treatment plants are now able to process more water, according to a city statement issued Thursday. It is unclear how long it will be until the plants are running at full capacity. Normally, Austin Water can process more than 300 million gallons per day.
Disclosure: Steve Adler and The University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.