While Austin Water has taken steps to improve its operations following the recent high-profile disruptions, the city’s public utility still has a number of structural and management issues that need to be addressed, especially at the city’s Ullrich water treatment plant. to an external review.
A survey by the University of Texas Water and Environment Center and released by the City on Wednesday identified more than 50 recommended improvements for Austin Water, which serves more than 1 million customers and has an annual operating budget of $654 million.
The test was ordered by the Austin City Council almost a year ago, shortly after Austin Water customers were subjected to a three-day boil water notice in February 2022. the largest of the city’s three wastewater treatment plants – allowed water into the system that passed tests for turbidity or turbidity that exceeded regulatory limits.
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Greg Mesaros, the utility’s longtime director, announced his resignation shortly thereafter.
The February 2022 boil water notice was the latest in a string of issues for Austin Water since 2018 that have resulted in significant water outages or raised concerns about the quality and aesthetics of water being delivered to customers, drawing criticism from many in the community.
According to the review, the February 2022 incident was the fifth major water boil report in many years. The board ordered an external audit of the utility to better understand the problems and challenges the department was facing and reduce the need for boil water notifications.
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An external review found that the water quality issues studied “could not be attributed to a single cause and not all were specific to” the Ulrich plant, and also found that since February 2022, Austin Water has taken steps to address some of the issues. “Corrective actions … are improving flood preparedness, backup power alternatives, and controlling mussels,” the report says, but also notes that “a number of barriers remain that prevent (Ulrich’s plant) from consistently delivering high quality products.” water to the City of Austin in the future and during extreme events.”
The report states that issues requiring elaboration include “organizational conditions that include structure and management, human resources, communications (internal and external to Austin Water) and capital improvement processes. These restrictions directly impact the plant’s ability to effectively respond to emergencies, maintain and upgrade infrastructure, prepare for emerging potential source water quality issues, and recruit, train and retain staff. Some issues are not under the control of Austin Water and must be resolved at the city level.”
In December, the city announced that it had hired Shay Rolls Roalson as the new director of Austin Water.
In a written statement Wednesday, Roalson said: “Austin Water has been and continues to be an industry leader serving customers for over 100 years. We have a dedicated workforce that is committed to providing excellent and reliable services to our community and we have all been discouraged by recent water quality developments.”
Austin City Councilwoman Alison Alter, who is the sponsor of the resolution calling for an external review of Austin Water, said Wednesday the report is an important step towards restoring trust between the community and the utility and said it is critical that the city remains transparent. as the recommendations are being implemented.
“I look forward to our public utility taking on new approaches to managing our resources and managing our emergency response systems,” Alter said in a written statement. “Austin can serve as an example for other cities and utilities grappling with water quality and supply issues caused by the climate crisis, but it starts with transparency and accountability.”
The external review makes 53 recommendations to improve the operation and resiliency of the Ulrich plant, according to the city, and Austin Water agrees or partially agrees with 49 of those recommendations. According to them, work on 19 recommendations has already begun.
The report states that the top priority is to hire and retain employees at a basic level. According to the report, this is essential for many other organizational and management tasks at the Ulrich plant.
“The most pressing resilience gap is that the organization lacks the human resources capacity to deal with extraordinary upcoming, immediate and current events,” the report says. “This overarching need is essential to the success of other recommendations regarding staff training, scenario planning and infrastructure stress testing, increased preventive maintenance, improved access to standard and emergency operating procedures, watershed management planning, and improved resiliency.”
Meszaros, a former director of the utility, voiced similar concerns about Austin Water’s staffing on his resignation, citing “enormous” turnover and a lack of seasoned operators with years of experience.
Roalson said the external review provided a roadmap to help the utility restore community trust and strengthen its workforce.
“I intend to work on these recommendations and will update the Austin Water Resources Authority on February 15 on progress,” she said.