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Here’s what we know about what caused last week’s boil-water notice in Austin

Austin water.JPG
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
An Austin Water employee prepares to fill bottles at a water distribution site after the city issued a notice to boil water earlier this month.

As Austinites emerged last week from three days of having to boil their tap water before drinking it, they and their elected officials had questions. Most notably: What happened?

Austin Water initially attributed the problem to “employee error,” but provided few details. Then, last Friday, there was a flurry of news. The public utility’s director, Greg Meszaros, resigned and also released a memo clarifying several points about what happened. First, the utility placed three employees on administrative leave in relation to the error that caused the boil-water notice. And second, the error appeared to be an oversaturation of calcium carbonate during the water treatment process.

On Tuesday, Austin City Council members held a public meeting where they questioned Austin Water staff about the incident. There’s now a clearer picture of what happened nearly two weeks ago that forced Austin residents to boil their tap water.

“I am just profoundly sorry that we had this event,” Meszaros said Tuesday.

Here's what we know:

So, what happened?

According to details released last week in a memo and told to council members today, employees made a mistake at the city’s oldest water treatment plant, the Ullrich Plant, on the night of Friday, Feb. 4.

In the process of preparing a basin to treat incoming river water, employees added too much of a mixture containing calcium carbonate. That mixture is supposed to be poured into the basin over several hours, but for some reason it continued overnight, resulting in high levels of what the utility calls “turbidity,” or cloudiness, in the water.

While this problem appears to have happened overnight, the high turbidity wasn’t widely detected by utility staff until 8 a.m. Saturday. That’s when they began the process of shutting down the treatment plant and communicating with the state about issuing a boil-water notice.

Isn’t there a system in place to alert employees when something like this goes wrong?

Apparently, there is. According to Meszaros, both auditory and visual alarms go off when the system detects a high level of turbidity — and these alarms were functioning at the time.

“To the best of all of my knowledge, our alarms were working,” Meszaros said Tuesday. “But the decision-making for that was where it was breaking down. I don’t fully understand that now. I think that’s things that we’re still investigating.”

“As this situation intensified during the night, there was not a call for help," Meszaros said. "[The staff] felt they had it handled."

Couldn’t employees have isolated this one basin from the others, so that the excess calcium carbonate didn’t make its way farther through the treatment system?

Yes, this was an option, Meszaros said, but it wasn’t employed.

“You can isolate individual filters. You can isolate those from the control room. You just press a button,” he said. “We don’t entirely understand why some of that wasn’t done … why that plant staff shift thought they could handle it on their own.”

Austin Water runs two 12-hour shifts at its Ullrich Plant, Meszaros said. He said there may have been a breakdown in communication when one shift switched to the next. That's something the utility is looking into, he said.

So, this was an issue of employee negligence?

Meszaros has not called it that. In fact, he has denied this.

“There is no evidence of what I would describe as gross negligence by our employees,” he said. “Nothing where employees were sleeping on duty, where they left the plant, where they were fabricating data.”

Council members have questioned staff about the training employees are expected to have. Rick Coronado, assistant director at Austin Water, said that facility operators must have a license from the state and that every employee had met these criteria. Regardless, he said Tuesday, the utility was looking into its training protocols.

Meszaros did say the public utility has experienced a high rate of turnover recently. Twenty people left the utility in January. Meszaros said that was the highest number of departures Austin Water has had in one month.

“We used to have a lot of operators that had 20 years experience, 25 years experience," he said. "Those days are gone."

Was any of this a result of Austin Water being underfunded?

Meszaros said definitively, no.

“In my 15 years as director, whenever we have proposed a rate increase or a need to fund a project … in the end we got the support we needed. This wasn’t because we didn’t get funding from the council or along the way,” he said.

The utility’s operating budget is $654 million for the current fiscal year, and it expects to earn $4 million more than it spends.

“I have never experienced that the system was starved for funding,” Meszaros said.

What happens now?

Austin Water is finishing an internal investigation, which Meszaros expects to be complete in a week.

At the same time, the Austin City Council will vote Thursday on whether to hire a third-party to look into what happened. It’s unclear yet when that investigation will conclude.

Meszaros also said the utility is considering giving customers credit on their upcoming bills to make up for the inconvenience.

Audrey McGlinchy is the City Hall reporter at KUT, covering the Austin City Council and the policies they discuss. She comes to Texas from Brooklyn, where she tried her hand at publishing, public relations and nannying. Audrey holds English and journalism degrees from Wesleyan University and the City University of New York. She got her start in journalism as an intern at KUT Radio during a summer break from graduate school. While completing her master's degree in New York City, she interned at the New York Times Magazine and Guernica Magazine.