Former Austin mayor wonders if city water treatment needs expanding


AUSTIN (KXAN) — The man who led the city of Austin during the commissioning of the city’s newest water treatment plant wonders if recent flooding highlights a need for that plant to be expanded.

Former Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell said an eventual expansion is exactly what the city council had in mind while planning the Handcox Water Treatment Facility on Ranch to Market 620. 

The Handcox plant was commissioned in 2014 and is also referred to by its original name: Water Treatment Plant 4. Currently, it has the capacity to treat 50 million gallons of water per day, though Austin Water said they typically do not need to treat that volume of water.

When the plant was built, it was designed so that capacity could be expanded in the future up to 300 million gallons per day, Austin Water said. 

Leffingwell, who served as mayor from 2009 to 2015, said the plant was designed factoring in the inevitability of Austin’s growth. 

“What I’m saying is we should look into it, we should consider and make a decision on when we should begin the expansion,” Leffingwell said. “I don’t have the answer, I just say someone should be asking the question.”

While the flooding was going on, Austin Water explained that the rate of turbidity (cloudiness) in raw water coming from the lakes into city treatment plants was lowest at the Handcox plant. 

Austin Water told KXAN Monday that during the flooding event Handcox contributed around 15 million gallons per day to the city’s water system, “which certainly helped add to what we needed to maintain enough water in the system and allow for all of the plants to continue to recover.”

Leffingwell said he is glad the Handcox plant was operational during this flood event. 

The city of Austin gets all of its water from the Colorado River. The Handcox plant draws water from Lake Travis while the city’s older plants, Ullrich and Davis, draw from Lake Austin. Austin Water noted that the Ullrich Plant had the most quality problems during the flooding, water treated at that plant exceeded state standards for cloudiness, thereby triggering a mandatory boil water notice from the state.

Leffingwell said because the two plants on Lake Austin are so close together, he believes it is essential that the city continue leaning on water coming in from Lake Travis. If problems occur in the water on Lake Austin, Leffingwell said having a plant at another location will likely help the city. As a former pilot, he believes having redundancies in systems are the key to ensuring safety. 

Leffingwell explained that voters approved the funds to build the Handcox plant in 1984, but that logistics and political controversies prevented it from being built and operated for decades. He referred to the Handcox plant as the most controversial political issue during his time in office. 

“It was a tough political battle because we had a lot of people in Central Texas, especially in Austin, who opposed it primarily because it would allow the city to grow more than they think it should,” Leffingwell said. “There’s nothing wrong with thinking that, but the fact is the city is going to grow no matter what we do if we don’t provide the adequate infrastructure we’re going to have to pay the price down the road.”

“When they do start talking about it I’m sure there will be voices raised in objection, but still that conversation needs to be had,” Leffingwell said. 

He believes that within around a year of work, it would be “relatively inexpensive” for the city to double, triple, or even quadruple its operations at Handcox. 

A spokesperson for Austin Water noted that all the city’s water treatment plants were impacted by floodwater, their water quality, chemistry and physical characteristics were all changed. During flooding, all the plants had to operate at 33-50 percent of their normal capacity because of the increased water cloudiness. 

Austin Water will be conducting an action review to figure out why some of the plants saw performance issues. 

Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk issued a memo Sunday detailing the next steps for the city after this water crisis. He explained that over the next 10 to 14 days Austin Water will provide checks and maintenance on their entire system.

The city’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management department will file several reports on how the city handled the flooding and subsequent boil water notice.  Additionally, Austin Water will do its own review, Cronk explained. He noted that Austin Water will analyze what led to the water turbidity during the flooding as well as a review of all the city’s water treatment plants.

This review will focus on what can be done in the short term to improve drinking water treatment systems when flooding events like this happen in the future. 

Austin Water explained that there are currently no plans to expand the Handcox plant and an expansion would have to be voted on by city council. 

The status of the city’s treatment plants is already on the minds of council members, Austin City Council Member Ellen Troxclair toured the Travis County Water Treatment Plant 17 Friday to highlight why that county-run plant remained fully operational during the flooding.

“The water they get here in the Travis County facility is similar to the water we get in our city of Austin plants, but because they have different technology they’ve actually had no slow down in the amount of water they’ve been able to clarify,” Troxclair explained during a Facebook Live video at the Travis County plant. 

She has filed a resolution that will appear on the Nov. 15 council agenda asking the city manager to report back one month after the boil water notice was lifted to detail a number of things, including a status update on all of the city’s water treatment plants and information about how the city can better address water cloudiness during future flooding. 

WCID 17 explained their plant is equipped with “membrane filtration technology that is superior to Austin Water.”  They explained that as a result, while WCID 17 draws their water from Lake Travis, they were not impacted by the boil water notice which Austin was.

A spokesperson for Council Member Troxclair explained that the councilwoman would want to see the details behind any plans for future plant expansions before she’d know whether that’s something she’d support or not. 

The disparities between Austin treatment plants and other municipalities during the flooding was on Leffingwell’s mind as well. 

“I was kind of wondering, why are we having this problem when there are other cities around us that also draw water out of the highland lake system… I think that’s one thing  I would call into question, is why don’t we have that?” Leffingwell said. 

Leffingwell was clear, he is not placing blame on Austin Water and notes that city staff provided the support necessary to get the Handcox plant commissioned in the first place. He thinks this flood presents a good opportunity for the city to start asking how its systems stacked up compared to those of other jurisdictions.  

Austin Water is looking into the possibility of increasing the number of water sources the city draws from. They are working on a “Water Forward Plan” along with other city leaders. The city’s water utility noted that the Colorado River and Highland Lakes will continue to be the city’s main water source, but Austin is also looking at the potential of leaning on options like Aquifer Storage and Recovery as well as expanding the city’s existing Reclaimed Water System.

Austin Water plans to take their Water Forward Plan recommendations to City Council within the next month. 

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