Listen to Austin 360 Radio

As Austin water is restored, officials ponder how close they came to worse disaster

Tony Plohetski
Austin American-Statesman

Austin neared restoration of water service Sunday amid revelations that it had narrowly averted an even more perilous water disaster.

Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros said most of the city should have at least some water flowing by the end of Sunday. He warned, though, that water pressure levels would vary based on location and other factors.

At the height of the emergency, Meszaros said, the city was at risk of losing all water service last week had it not been for facilities in a vast area served by what he called a “central pressure district” fed by two main plants. As it was, large portions of the city suffered one or more days of water loss.

“It was pretty dire,” Meszaros told the American-Statesman. “It could have gotten worse, but the central system kept going and gave us a platform to rebuild from.” 

Except for bursting pipes in individual homes, water had not initially been a critical factor in last week’s winter storm that left millions across Texas — and hundreds of thousands in Austin — without power. But by midweek, faucets began to run dry due to widespread system failures, and officials and residents realized that the icy weather had delivered a second brutal punch.

Volunteers pass out cases of bottled water Sunday to desperate western Travis County residents who lost tap water for several days. They were allotted only one case per car after some waited three hours.

More:Can I use my dishwasher during a boil-water notice? And other frequently asked questions

In Austin, the Ullrich Water Treatment Plant, the city’s main plant, suffered a loss of power Thursday because of what Meszaros said was a “transformer issue.”

And it happened as the city’s reservoir storage dipped to 10 million gallons, an amount so low that accurate instrument reading was difficult as pipes ruptured throughout the system.

By Sunday, that amount had returned to 72 million gallons, but officials say reservoirs must hold 100 million gallons before they can begin lifting boil water notices.

Water outages remained widespread across the state Sunday as thousands of increasingly desperate people sought water at publicly available stations in cities and small towns.

Sarah Schlessinger, executive director of the Texas Water Foundation, a nonprofit created to raise awareness of the need for water, said what happened highlights the connection between energy and water — an issue the public might not have realized until now.

“I don’t know that Texas has ever seen this biggest collective experience of water insecurity,” she said. “Having all of your major cities at one time with both a supply and quality issue simultaneously really drives home the significance of water security. I don’t know if that is something Texas has ever experienced before but certainly needs to be thinking about in terms of its future.”

On Sunday, a map showed that large swaths of Austin still had no water, including parts of North and Northwest Austin and Southwest Austin. Other parts of the city, including much of Central and South Austin, had at least some flow.

Much of it is based on physics, Meszaros said, and how water travels based on elevation.

“There are a lot of conspiracies out there that we are pushing buttons of who got water and who didn’t,” he said. “They aren’t true.”

More:How to apply for Texas FEMA assistance, what you need to know

Austin officials said that even though the city continued producing about 200 million gallons of water per day last week, much of it did not travel through the system because of broken water mains and busted private pipes that interrupted the flow.

Volunteers organize lines of vehicles as western Travis County residents wait to receive cases of bottled water Sunday.

Meszaros said Sunday that it could take a couple of days for pressure to build up systemwide, and that areas at higher elevations, including Circle C, might have low pressure for longer as the pressure must push water to higher points.

“It will start for some people as a trickle and build up hour by hour,” he said. 

He said he expects that the need to boil water will subside as more pressure comes into the system, and that the requirement probably will be lifted in stages as more water districts receive adequate pressure.

Volunteers load cars with supplies at Del Valle High School on Saturday. The Central Texas Food Bank set up a drive-thru to provide food, water and milk as millions in Texas struggled without clean drinking water and ran low on other needed items.

Meszaros said that the system has never faced such a widespread outage and he hopes it can be avoided in years to come.

“We will have water main breaks in neighborhoods, and a few hundred customers may go without water for a few hours,” he said. “But the term ‘water outage’ hasn’t been in our vocabulary until now.”

In the meantime, the city and Travis County enacted bans on car washing and other outdoor water uses, such as landscape watering and filling pools and spas. Officials urged people to conserve as the system recovers from last week’s failures.