Moderate to severe drought around the Highland Lakes as seen in the LCRA’s Hydromet map. Austin Water is, among other things, adding staff and reservoirs to address boil water notices, but drought will put these measures to the test (Courtesy of Lower Colorado River Authority)
In light of the rising number of boil water notices in recent years, Austin Water updated City Council members on the Austin Water Oversight Committee Wednesday about its efforts to shore up resilience.
Those measures include two new water reservoirs in South Austin, an area hit hardest by system failures during and after Winter Storm Uri. But this summer’s worsening drought will test the system’s resilience further.
Quality and reliability aside, water supply will probably continue to dwindle due to the drought, likely to go into Stage 2 mitigation protocols by July, AW estimates. Right now, Lakes Travis and Buchanan are about half full at 1 million acre-feet – Stage 2 is triggered if storage drops below 900,000 acre-feet. A Stage 1 drought was declared last June, which means AW is encouraging individual conservation limits on sprinklers, misters, and fountains. In March, the Lower Colorado River Authority, an agency with broad conservation powers, cut off its agricultural customers downstream from the Highland Lakes for the first time since the 2012-2015 drought. Furthermore, UT-Austin researchers working with AW have identified some high level trends in the Colorado River Basin that don’t bode well: Annual temps increasing, less frequent and more intense rainfall events, and the number of hot and dry days (over 100 degrees and less than .01” precipitation) increasing as well.
Parts of Texas are already experiencing extreme and exceptional drought (Courtesy of The Drought Monitor / droughtmonitor.unl.edu)
In response, AW hopes to implement more strategies for beneficial reuse that reduce demand – using non-potable water for non-potable uses, like toilet flushing or yard watering, instead of precious drinking water. In 2020, Council approved loosening regulations on on-site water reuse systems like stormwater and rainwater harvesting, and by the end of this year, an ordinance will require developments with greater than a 250,000 square foot floor area to include onsite reuse.
South Austin, used to inequitable service during boil water notices, will get an additional 5 million gallons of water through two new reservoirs Council announced last week. The reservoirs will allow AW crews to do maintenance during emergencies without affecting service.
In response to an external review initiated earlier this year to investigate why boil water notices happened, AW has ramped up hiring and retention strategies at Ullrich Water Treatment Plant, the understaffed, aging plant identified as the source of the issue. They’ve hired 214 people in 2023 so far, with a goal of 400 by the end of the year, and implemented retention strategies like a 10% stipend on each paycheck for all staff with more than a year of service. AW Director Shea Ralls Roalson told the Oversight Committee that the vacancy rate has “not budged very much” despite these efforts, as they’ve been losing employees over the last 18 months, specifically at Ullrich. However, in the last two months, there have been fewer departures, and the vacancy rate has gone from 15% at the beginning of the year to 11% – they aim to end the year at 10%.
Next year AW’s Water Forward Plan will see its first update since its inception in 2018, with a focus on uncertainty in water planning due to climate change. They will also identify a pilot location by the end of this year for an Aquifer Storage and Recovery project that will store drinking water in an aquifer to extract during times of drought.
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