AUSTIN, Texas — More than two weeks after Winter Storm Uri hit Central Texas cities, including Austin, city council members are now digging for answers about what went wrong leading to problems for nearly the whole city.
The Austin Water Oversight Committee will hold a joint meeting with the Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee to get answers from two of the City's most essential entities: Austin Water and Austin Energy.
City Council Member Alison Alter, District 10, who is also on the Water Oversight Committee, said the City's priority right now is getting everyone's water back online.
"There were about 400 apartment buildings that we were concerned about," she said. "My rough remembrances, about 68 still needed water."
This does not include the private homes that are also dealing with broken pipes.
However, the City also needs answers. Austin Energy will have the chance to break down what happened before getting questioned by the committee.
When the storm hit and systems started failing, Alter said city council members were only learning about the issues minutes before the rest of the public.
"My hope is that we are going to get more details about what happened at the Ullrich Water Plant, figure out what made that water plant go down, how the power went out, how the redundancies didn't function, what were the factors beyond power that led to it and some of the other nitty-gritty," Alter said.
This week, the Austin American Statesman discovered the water plant had a backup power source, but staff members did not know how to operate a 52-year-old switch that would have restored power and kept operations functioning.
However, the issue goes beyond the power to the plant. Alter said the City needs to begin looking at the water infrastructure in Austin and how to make it more resilient to the changing climate: both the extreme cold and heat.
"I don't know that it's as simple as just do what they did up North, because they don't have our heat," Alter said. "When you weatherize stuff for cold, you're making it harder to function in the heat, too."
This is the fifth instance of a big challenge to Austin's water system. The City also faced a boil water notice during the 2018 floods, issues related to blue-green algae and zebra mussels, and the boil water notice of 2008.
The Austin Water Oversight committee is led by council members Ann Kitchen (chair), Vanessa Fuentes (vice chair), Leslie Pool, Paige Ellis and Alison Alter.
The oversight meeting will start at 1 p.m. Austin Energy will have the floor first for an hour, followed by Austin Water, which will have two hours.
Alter recognizes that many people are still without water across the City. She said she has partnered with multiple organizations to make free resources available.
This includes partnering with Water Mission, Plumbers without Borders and the Austin Disaster Relief Network to repair burst pipes and get water safely flowing into homes.
Learn more about free support options here.
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