City says water outages could last for days

As of the morning of Feb. 21, Northwest Austin section A has low pressure water.

UPDATED: On Sunday Feb. 21, Northwest Austin section A got water service back online.

Friday, February 19, 2021

By Jonathan Lee Austin Monitor

Many Austinites remain completely without water Friday as tens of thousands of cold-related leaks riddle water mains and pipes, leaving the city in a water crisis that is set to last days.

“We never imagined the day where hospitals wouldn’t have water and large segments of our customer base wouldn’t have water,” Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros said at a press conference yesterday. “Our infrastructure systems are not built for cold weather that is sustained in single digits.”

Officials urge residents to use water as sparingly as possible to allow the system to regain water pressure. Meanwhile, local, state and federal officials are rushing to ship bottled water to the city.

The water outages add to the other infrastructure failures that have deprived many people of basic needs during this week’s unprecedented winter storm.

Austin Water could not say how many residents remain without water, which areas have been impacted the most or how long it will take for water services to be restored.

“We don’t know where leaks are; we don’t know how bad those leaks are going to be; we don’t know how long some of them are going to take to fix,” Meszaros said. “It’s better to plan for … days without water, rather than hours.”

Those who do have water must still boil it – a precaution that could also last for days – because the leaks could allow harmful microorganisms or chemicals into the water supply.

“Even though the risk is low, and we don’t know of any particular (pollution) source, it’s really important to boil water,” Meszaros said. Any water used for cooking or drinking must be boiled for at least two minutes. The city even said residents may boil clean snow, should it come to that.

Some residents who have water may still lack power or natural gas, leaving them unable to boil their water.

As of Thursday night, some 13 million people statewide were under a boil-water notice and over 300,000 people remained without power.

Before the city’s water supply can be restored, Meszaros said, water levels in the city’s depleted reservoirs need to rise, a process that “is going to take time.”

The leaks have caused an unprecedented amount of water loss, with the worst losses occurring between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. “We were losing 325 million gallons of water at the peak,” Meszaros said. “That is an incredible amount of water.” Austin typically uses 100 million gallons of water per day.

Thankfully, Meszaros said, the system is already recovering as crews work around the clock to fix leaks and residents and businesses heed the city’s water conservation message. Many of the leaks may go undetected until temperatures rise above freezing. Austin Water urged citizens to report leaks using this form.

Once the pipes are leak-free and the water flows normally, the city will test the water for harmful bacteria and pollutants. If the results come back clean, residents won’t have to boil water anymore.

The department’s main priority is restoring water to hospitals and other medical services like dialysis centers. St. David’s Hospital in South Austin lost water pressure Wednesday, forcing some patients to be transferred or sent home.

Once all the leaks are fixed across the city, it may take 24-48 hours to bring back water pressure to affected areas.

In the meantime, the city is working with the state and federal government to buy bottled water and distribute it to those without water. Limited amounts of bottled water are already available to distribute, but most of the water has to be brought in from out of state. Many other Texas cities are also purchasing water, depleting the state’s supply. Icy roads also make the delivery schedule uncertain.

The bottled water will mostly be distributed at pickup sites, but some will be delivered to the city’s most vulnerable residents, such as the elderly, those with medical problems and those experiencing homelessness. Exact details are not yet available.

Update: Austin Water has released a map of water performance as of Friday morning:

This map shows areas without water on Friday, Feb. 19.

The Austin Monitor is an online, nonpartisan, 501(c)3 nonprofit publication that covers local government and politics in and around Austin.