Resignation and Investigation: City of Austin ‘Boil Water’ Fallout Continues - Texas Scorecard

AUSTIN — After roughly 1 million Austinites experienced the third citywide boil water notice in four years, citizens are again questioning local officials and advocating for competent management of Austin’s lifeline supply.

The story began earlier this month when an “operator error” at the city’s Ullrich Water Treatment Plant upended the entire water system in the nation’s 11th largest metropolis, causing officials to again notify citizens to boil their tap water before drinking. Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros said staff added too much chemical mixture during the treatment process and created high turbidity, or cloudiness, in the water.

“The ‘seeding’ – adding the high turbidity mixture – should have stopped after a couple of hours. Instead, it continued for most of the night,” Meszaros wrote in a memo. “This resulted in high turbidity water that contained higher than normal levels of calcium oxide moving into the water filters – the next step in the process.”

“At first the filters were able to remove the particles and produce water that met regulatory standards,” he continued. “Ultimately the finished water that enters the distribution system began exceeding regulatory standards for turbidity early on Saturday morning around 8 a.m. Because of this, the plant was shut down at 9:30 a.m.”

This was the third such incident in four years. Austinites had to boil the city water in 2018, when utility equipment had problems during heavy rainfalls and flooding in the nearby river system, and in 2021, when staff at the Ullrich Plant didn’t know how to turn on a backup power switch during the winter storm.

“Being able to provide safe drinking water … should not be one of the challenges we have to solve,” said Austin City Councilmember Natasha Harper-Madison. “It’s beyond frustrating to have to go through this kind of incident with this frequency.”

“In our city, we can’t have our water system be going down like this,” said Mayor Steve Adler.

Last week, amid an ongoing internal review of the event, Meszaros resigned and three employees were placed on administrative leave pending further investigation.

However, citizens are calling for an external audit of the utility and for the Austin City Council to execute long overdue improvements to the government-run system.

“No, firing one person should not make you confident in Austin Water. Much more is needed,” wrote citizen activist group Save Austin Now in a press release.

First, the results of the internal investigation need to be fully and swiftly released without redaction. Second, a completely independent and thorough financial audit of Austin Water needs to be conducted and released to the public within 90 days. Third, the Mayor and City Council need to end their $45-$50 million annual raid on Austin Water’s budget for their own pet projects and instead use those funds to invest in increasing our water supply as a growing city. Anything short of these steps shows City Hall is not serious about fixing the problems at Austin Water and will further undermine public confidence in city leaders and in the city’s source of water for residents and commercial users.

Despite the fact the Democrat-run city council spends roughly double per capita compared to Dallas or Houston, citizens say the council still cannot get the water—the most essential lifeline service—secure.

“So City of Austin leaders have promoted or implemented ideas, policies and actions like socialized housing … Green New Deal, legal public camping, defunding and dismantling the police, taxpayer funded abortion services, [and other examples]. … Yet we can’t find time to assess or audit our budget to be sure we invest in critical and basic infrastructure to ensure the health and safety of our residents?” wrote citizen Brian Talley in a Facebook post during the crisis last year.

“Maybe it is just me, but I find it terrifying that we lost half our water treatment capacity due to a tree limb,” he continued, referencing the 2021 incident. “Maybe, just an idea, we (media, city council, commissioners, etc.) put aside the radical activist political agenda FOREVER and focus on core city services? Novel idea.”