AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austinites are being asked to take two key steps to help their neighbors as the city works to restore power and water: Conserve power if they can, and conserve water as much as they can.
“We’re asking the community to only take what they need,” City Manager Spencer Cronk said.
To help break down the situation, Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Travis County Judge Andy Brown, City Manager Spencer Cronk, Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros and Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent provided an update Wednesday.
Austin Energy update
Sargent said Austin Energy is continuing to respond to ERCOT’s needs as it is operating at very low reserve margins.
“We are so sorry that our customers are experiencing these horrible conditions and I want you to know Austin Energy is doing everything it can to restore power,” Sargent said.
Recently, thousands of Austinites had power restored. Sargent said it has restored as many circuits as it can and is prioritizing those without power the longest.
However, there is a chance people may lose power again, especially in light of the ice storm which is causing falling limbs and impeding equipment operations. People who had power restored overnight or those who hadn’t lost power may have lost it because of that.
Sargent also said those who had power restored may not have it indefinitely. Once the ERCOT circuits stabilize, the chances the system will overload will decrease and then Austin Energy can begin rotating outages as it had originally planned. The reason it never started rotating in the first place was that ERCOT’s requirements were “so large” that the available circuits were maxed out, and there wasn’t enough headroom to rotate.
All hospitals and other tier one infrastructure will not be rotated when that happens, but they are still vulnerable to potential ice storm effects.
She added any little bit those with power can do to conserve helps.
Additionally, Sargent said line workers out in the community working to fix issues are being threatened, harassed or having things thrown at them. She asked people to not approach people working to restore power.
“These are essential workers risking their lives to respond to an emergency,” Sargent said.
One question many people have is how this will affect their energy bills. Sargent said she doesn’t know what the impact to Austin Energy customers will be yet, but says, “there will be impacts.” She said Austin Energy is “mindful of that” and will work to maintain a balance of affordability and reliability while also keeping in mind the financial health of Austin Energy.
Austin Water update
Even though temperatures are still near freezing, Austin Water is asking people to stop dripping their water as demand is nearly outpacing supply. Meszaros said even dripping a few faucets can use up more than a gallon a minute.
“We’re gonna need a lot of community help here,” Meszaros said, adding people can also help conserve water by not using washers or dishwashers, and helping isolate and turn off burst pipes if they are able.
Meszaros said peak pumping and demand is 2.5 times greater than the ability to produce water and rapidly draining the water system and reservoir. This is causing low pressure and outages, especially in southwest Austin where there is a boil water notice. There appears to be a large main break in the area, Meszaros said, possibly multiple.
But he also emphasized this is an issue not just isolated to southwest Austin and all could be affected.
Adler noted that Austin is approaching a water usage of 3 million gallons a day, which is two or three times larger than has ever been seen before.
All available resources are working to increase output, repair water mains and refill reservoirs, Meszaros said.
Meszaros addressed the conundrum of how people should boil water if they don’t have electricity. He said if people have gas, they can use that. Otherwise, they can get potable water through other means including bottled water, or calling neighbors for help. He said the city has some bottled water it will work to distribute but doesn’t have much.
“We know the hardship this is putting on people but this is really where we are now,” Meszaros said.
Austin Water is working to avoid having to do a boil water notice for the entire city, but can’t take it off the table now unless demand decreases. In 2018, the city had to implement a city-wide notice because heavy rains caused silt to jam up water treatment plants.
That led to a similar situation we’re seeing now, where reservoirs were drained down. Meszaros said what they learned from that situation is that customers conserving water was “key for us pulling out of that” and that if the city can recover pressures the system will stabilize.