AUSTIN (KXAN) – “This is silly,” said Bob Woody. “That’s what I remember.”

The downtown business owner of about 40 years said his bars and restaurants were shaken up last February during a boil water notice.

Drink dispensers were unusable.

“We just taped them down, didn’t use them and brought in all canned and bottled water,” he said.

The ice also had to be thrown out.

“We were unable to use anything associated with the City of Austin’s water system. So, if it was connected to that, you can only use it for wastewater. We really weren’t even supposed to wash our hands with it or anything,” he said.

Woody, who is also president of the East 6th Street Community Association, also represents 600 businesses there.

“[I] had to talk to… a lot of people about it,” he said. “They were like, ‘Well, this is I mean, this isn’t our normal. It’s costing us time, energy, effort and money.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, it does.’ ‘Well, do we have anybody we can ask for anything?’ ‘No.’ ‘Is anybody being responsible?’ I don’t, I don’t know!'”

That Austin water boil notice lasted three days, resulting from an employee operator error.

Now, nearly a year later, results of an external audit of Austin Water have been released, detailing 53 recommendations for the utility company to improve. 

In the last five years, there were five significant water quality events – water boil notices and zebra mussels issues – that led to notable disruptions for Austin Water. In response to these, Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter authored a resolution calling for an external audit of Austin Water to review these incidents, determine what went wrong and prevent it from happening again. Five City Council members co-sponsored Alter’s resolution, and it was unanimously passed at a City Council meeting in late February. 

“This is a pattern that is problematic, and one that we need to be looking at, you know, in a different way,” said Alter after the incident in Feb. 2022. 

Auditors said four of the five emergencies stemmed from the Ullrich Water Treatment Plant, so they focused their study on that plant, saying that their recommendations can also be applied to others.

The auditors found that while the Ullrich Water Treatment Plant, one of three plants Austin Water operates, is able to treat water successfully 99% of the time,  it was unsuccessful during times of extreme water turbidity – or when the water becomes cloudy.

They said it wasn’t a single cause preventing the water plant from delivering high-quality water during extreme events, there were 53 barriers.

The recommendations fall under areas of hiring and compensation, organizational structure, operations and staff training, culture and internal communications and emergency management, according to the report.

“They were not identifying big infrastructure investments to prepare for those extreme events. Rather, it was a lot of organization and structure changes that need to happen,” Alter said.

The utility company agreed fully or partially with 49 of the recommendations and has already begun working on nearly 20 of them. 

Auditors said the highest priority is staffing.

“Hiring and retaining staff at base levels is needed to facilitate many of the other organizational and managerial challenges at the Ullrich WTP,” researchers said.

They said the plant is “severely” understaffed, missing 30% of workers, and sometimes, there are only two operators at night.

“Operating a plant with two people simply is not safe,” auditors stated. “Staff injury is a very real possibility, and such an event could result in adverse impacts to water treatment.”

Auditors pointed out that there also isn’t enough staff with a higher level of experience, which “puts finished water quality at risk because not enough trained eyes, hands and brains are at work to keep things going smoothly.”

They suggested the utility partner with other utilities or the Texas Section of AWWA, a water professional organization, “to develop a pipeline for young people to learn about water
treatment and water operations and get some basic training.”

They also said other utilities have set up two-year programs at community college to provide operator training.

Another big problem: Poor communication

Auditors said poor communication between normal operating shift contributed to the boil water notice in February 2022, as well as poor communication to higher-ups.

“The February 2022 incident revealed poor judgment and decision making and an inability to adapt to an emerging incident. An apparent lack of communication by operating staff to management increased the seriousness of the situation,” the report stated.

You can read the full report with recommendations here.

“The release of this report is an important step towards rebuilding trust between our community and our utility, and it is crucial that we remain transparent as we implement the report recommendations,” Alter said in a message board post today. 

Alter said Austin Water will come up with an implementation plan next– for example, she said there may be some kind of dashboard to keep track of changes.

She said we are supposed to hear from Austin Water next about their response to the audit in a February 15 joint public meeting of the Audit and Finance Committee and the Austin Water Oversight Committee.

Alter also said she will make sure the utility is coming regularly to update those committees on its progress on changes.

Austin Water Director Shay Ralls Roalson released the following statement about the audit:

“Austin Water has been and continues to be an industry leader serving customers for more than 100 years. We have a dedicated workforce that strives to provide excellent and reliable service for our community, and we have all been discouraged by recent water quality events. While we have learned from these events and implemented enhancements to increase our resiliency, we welcome an outside perspective to help us evaluate where we can continue to improve. The external review conducted by the University of Texas Center for Water and the Environment has provided a roadmap of recommendations to help us restore trust with the community and strengthen our staff. I am committed to working through these recommendations and will share our implementation progress with the Austin Water Oversight Committee on February 15.”