Without specifying the exact error made, Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros said an oversight by employees caused the water supply’s “turbidity” — the measure of water clarity — to decline.
“Turbidity by itself has no health effects. However, turbidity can interfere with disinfection and provide a medium for microbial growth,” the city’s notice reads, stating that other health problems can stem from bacteria in the untreated water.
“To ensure destruction of all harmful bacteria and other microbes, any water that you use for drinking, cooking, or ice making should be boiled prior to consumption.”
The notice was initiated on Saturday evening and officials expect it to be lifted on Tuesday. The notice calls for any water to be boiled for two minutes before consumption or other use.
“We all need to do our part when something like this happens, and we will. We can also be frustrated, as I am, that there’s yet another situation to deal with,” said Mayor Steve Adler. “We can be thankful, too, that the situation was noticed quickly and steps taken, any public health risk is very, very small, and we’re much better prepared right now with equipment and supplies as we open water distribution stations. It appears this will be over in a couple of days, and the city will keep everyone informed along the way.”
Meszaros said that an investigation will be conducted into the cause of the issue and said that “all options are on the table” when asked if the employees responsible would be fired. The mistake, Meszaros said, is “not easy” to make and was the first such occurrence. Before 2018, the city hadn’t issued any boil notices, but the first came when a higher-than-expected level of flooding caused contamination issues.
During last year’s blackouts, Austin’s largest water treatment plant faced a power failure which led to another boil notice for half the city that lasted for a few days. But a report by the Austin-American Statesman found that power could not be restored because nobody on staff knew how to flip a half-century-old gear switch installed in the facility.
The city has been distributing bottled water to its citizens since the notice.
Meszaros has served as the public water utility’s director for almost 15 years. This year’s city budget allocated $654 million to the utility.
Over the weekend, Austin City Councilwoman Paige Ellis called a special meeting for the council to discuss the issue.
“The people of Austin deserve to know how we got under this boil water notice — and how we can prevent another one in the future,” Ellis said.
Councilwoman Alison Alter also called for an external audit of the utility.
Update: As of 10:30 p.m. Tuesday evening, February 9, the citywide boil notice has been lifted.
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Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.