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Austin Boil-Water Mandate Could Last Less Than A Week As City Faces Possible Shortage

Travis County emergency management officials told Austin residents on Tuesday they'll need to boil their tap water for the next several days, and urged residents to cut water consumption as the city faces a potential shortage.

In a meeting with county commissioners, Chief Emergency Management Coordinator Eric Carter said Austin Water could take 10 to 14 days to stabilize all three treatment plants and restore production to last week's preflood levels.

But Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros shared a more conservative estimate, that "based on current information we do not anticipate our water issues to last beyond a handful of days." But he added that consumption demands and weather could prolong the citywide mandate to boil all water intended for drinking, cooking or any type of ingestion.

"We aren't necessarily at a water shortage, we just have a situation where we have to take an extra step to make sure our water is safe for us to drink," said Meszaros, according to NPR member station KUT.

Local forecasts indicate a strong likelihood of rain on Wednesday — a factor that could further overwhelm the city's water infrastructure.

In the interim, officials are urging the public to reduce personal water consumption by 15 to 20 percent. "Immediate action is needed to avoid running out of water," the utility company said in a statement, explaining that water levels are reaching "minimal levels."

The utility has been struggling to treat floodwaters since last week's historic deluge throughout Central Texas. Silt, mud and debris in the city's water supply lakes have diminished the system's water treatment capacity.

Carter told the Travis County Commissioners Court that "lakes Travis and Austin have seen levels of silt that are five times higher than Austin's water utility has ever seen," KUT reported.

Austin Water says the local water treatment plants can currently produce approximately 105 million gallons of water per day. Current customer use is about 120 million gallons per day.

KUT's Mose Buchele described the condition of the water in the city's lakes and reservoirs to NPR's Here & Now as looking like "chocolate milk."

Buchele explained that the utility company is struggling to filter the thick, "dark brown" water "to a level that would be a good standard for drinking."

"That takes a lot longer," than processing the quality of water normally in the city's supply, he said.

Until further notice the city has prohibited all outdoor water use. Customers may not:

  • Use water for irrigation or testing of irrigation equipment
  • Wash vehicles, including at commercial car wash facilities
  • Wash pavement or other surfaces
  • Add water to a pool or spa
  • Conduct foundation watering, or
  • Operate an ornamental fountain or pond, other than aeration necessary to support aquatic life
  • Restaurants and coffee shops are also heavily restricted. Buchele reported restaurants are no longer serving ice and many of the city's coffee shop businesses have shut down completely "because most of them are not boiling the amount of water they would need to in order to serve the volume they typically serve," Buchele reports.

    As Matt Largey reported for NPR on Monday, "Austin Independent School District is encouraging students to bring water bottles with them. In an email Monday morning, the school district also said all cafeteria managers are following boil instructions and that lunch menus have been adjusted to ensure safety. That includes eliminating all salad bars for now."

    The boil-water advisory coupled with its uncertain longevity triggered a frantic run on bottled water throughout the city on Monday. But as the Texas Statesman reported shipments of water from San Antonio helped stabilize the situation.

    Still, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt hoped to stem another rush by advising those who can to boil water rather than buy bottled water. According to Stateman reporter Taylor Goldenstein, Eckhardt said that store-bought water should be reserved for vulnerable populations, including children, schools and the elderly.

    "We're a community of sharing, not hoarding," she said.

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.