Austin wades out of historic floods, looks to expand water sources


AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin is returning to normalcy following historic flooding, silt-filled water overwhelming city water intake plants and a city-wide water boil notice.

However, those events and the stress they caused are still at the forefront as Austin Water, the city’s water utility, presented a 100-year water plan to city council Tuesday. 

Austin Water has been working on this “Water Forward Plan” for four years, it will ultimately need to be passed by council. Currently the council is scheduled to hear about the plan one more time, then they are set to vote on it November 29. 

Among other things, the plan allows the city to look into adding to its water supply. 

Currently, Austin gets all of its water from the Colorado River. Of the three city water intake plants, two are on Lake Austin and one is on Lake Travis. 

Austin Water said under this plan, the city intends to continue using the river and the Highland Lakes as its main water source. However, the utility also wants to add other options such as expanding Aquifer Storage and Recovery (storing drinking water deep underground) as well as expanding Austin’s reclaimed water system. 

Austin Water director Greg Meszaros said if these things don’t happen, the city will face more risk when there is too much or too little water around. 

Meszaros added that the water utility is still evaluating how things went during the boil water notice and won’t be making any recommendations about particular water treatment plants yet. 

“Quite frankly, I don’t think a major plant expansion is a solution that will be the most cost effective or beneficial as a result of this boil water notice,” said Meszaros, noting that projects like an expansion take decades, whereas the city of Austin needs solutions that are more immediate.

Meszaros noted that the Water Forward plan doesn’t touch on any specific recommendations for Austin’s water intake plants 

The plan does not include any aqueducts or efforts to pipe groundwater from other areas, the task force involved who crafted the plan said that is because they didn’t want to drain water from other communities.  

“By 2040 if we actually implement the plan that we are presenting to council, the city of Austin will be capturing and treating more water on site than any other city in the united states by 20 times,” explained Sharlene Leurig, the chair of the Water Forward Task Force. 

“We also recognize that with population growth and with climate change, that supply is not going to provide reliable water for our population as we grow,” Leurig added, explaining that looking to reclaimed water and condensation will be important tools for Austin’s future. 

Leurig and Meszaros noted that just as much water evaporates from the Highland Lakes as the city of Austin uses, and if temperatures continue to increase, the rate of evaporation could increase by as much as 50 percent. 

This plan appeared before council just as Austin Water announced Tuesday that it is lifting emergency water use restrictions put in place after the flooding. The public is now allowed to use water outdoors but is encouraged to still use water wisely. 

“There’s a lot of learning that comes out of that and we will be making additional recommendations,” Meszaros said of the boil water notice. “And maybe in the future we will anticipate notifying the community earlier if we see a major water quality upset event, to get them involved in reducing water rates earlier .”

More discussion of how the boil water notice was handled will happen at city council on Thursday. 

Impact to business

The boil water notice and citywide conservation rules impacted many businesses across Austin.

The Brewtorium Brewery and Kitchen boiled extra water in one of their tanks to keep their restaurant going, then shared the extra water to help keep local coffee shops afloat as well. 

“We couldn’t just go to the store and buy a whole bunch of jugs of water to get through it, so we had to be a little bit creative,” explained Chris Rauschuber, the head brewer for the Brewtorium. 

“Unfortunately, beer is a really water intensive process, not just for the ingredients part of it but for cleaning and sanitation,” he added. 

Brewtorium relies on city of Austin water for all their operations, having clean and safe water for years into the future is very important to them.  

Rauschuber said the brewery takes conserving water very seriously. He noted that some breweries have systems on their properties which allow them to reclaim all their water. Though Rauschuber would love a system like that, it’s beyond what the Brewtorium is able to pay. He explained there is a limit to what small breweries can afford when it comes to sustainability measures. 

UT Austin water re-use

The Water Forward Task Force cited the University of Texas at Austin as an example of resourceful re-use of water, noting that more than 60 million gallons of water per year are created by condensation from the university’s chilling plants. 

UT’s Utility and Energy Management department explained that this system is part of an interconnected, underground network of pipes which send chilled water in a continuous cycle. 

“In each building, the water passes through cooling coils, which create condensation by cooling the air and pulling the moisture from the air,” explained Laura Stevens, a communications specialist with UT. 

UT has used this system since the 1980’s, routing the water to cooling towers instead of sewer drains. 

“The quality of the recovered water is advantageous for cooling and power generating plants since purchased water from the Austin Water and Wastewater utility is extremely variable in quality and has a high PH,” Stevens said. 

She added that the water UT uses mainly comes from recovered water, sourced from things like condensation as well as reclaimed, non-potable water which UT purchases from the city. The non-potable water is used for meeting campus energy needs, she said. 

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