Photo by Austin
Friday, April 1, 2022 by Chad Swiatecki
It seems likely that the city will approve a special budget item that will pay for more than a dozen new hires and operational software improvements for Austin Water.
The city council’s Austin Water Oversight Committee voted unanimously Thursday to support the staffer’s recommendation, the result of an investigation into what led utility customers to issue three-day boil water notices in early February. The vote moves the proposed spending forward for a vote at a future council meeting.
City leaders had considered crediting customers as part of an afterthought, but Austin Water’s recent memo supports investments in staff, equipment and software. The cost of these improvements, including 16 full-time positions, is expected to be approximately $2 million.
Earlier this week, Austin Water released the report detailing its internal investigation into how the turbidity, or turbidity, of the effluent from the Ulrich water treatment plant far exceeded allowable levels on the night of February 4, Caused to close the factory the next day and boil water notice.
The report found that the three-person overnight team monitoring the plant ignored notifications of equipment problems that required their attention, misdiagnosed the cause of the increasingly cloudy water, and failed to notify supervisors of problems accumulated over the course of a 12-hour shift that ended at 7 a.m.
When the team took over the next morning, they quickly identified and diagnosed the problem, and the plant was shut down in about two hours.
Stephanie Sue, the utility’s manager of water treatment operations, said the incident showed that Austin Water’s staff clearly needed training around standard operating procedures.
“It is sad and frustrating that this team’s inaction that night was the direct cause of the boiling water notice and impacted the lives of the citizens of Austin,” she said. “Besides that, it’s not fair that the employees who are doing high-quality work and working hard in my factory now have to be subjected to the scrutiny that comes with this boiling water notice.”
This is the city’s third boiling notice since late 2018.
Su said changes to practices, including allowing supervisors to check factory monitors remotely, will help prevent the incident from happening again. But she said severe worker shortages and vacancies had put undue pressure on her staff.
“The business of running a water treatment plant is not something we can automate. It’s not something a robot can do, so we have to be highly dependent on and invest in our people to be successful,” she said.
“Our workforce is very challenged right now. We have a lot of vacancies and we are doing a market study right now, which shows that we are not operationally competitive with other utilities, let alone other businesses in Austin that are more competitive Less responsibility pays more.”
Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter said she expects leadership from Sue and other water utilities to report on a timeline for planned improvements and hiring, as well as detailing other possible information gaps that need to be addressed.
“What confuses me is the regulatory side, especially in 2022, there are systems that can send alerts to regulators, but we don’t have autonomous notifications to regulators,” she said. “Why don’t we have that setup, and where else do we have it where the factory needs it?”
Council member Ann Kitchen said training and efforts to change culture and attitudes may be needed after revelations that a team member involved in the issue had said “weak teams talked to supervisors” as an explanation for why the situation had worsened without notice.
“I’m trying to figure out if we’re talking about a lack of knowledge or a lack of awareness of what the problem is, rather than not understanding the importance of bringing in regulatory assistance,” she said. “I’d like to dig deeper into that attitude or culture, beyond what happens with the knowledge base. In addition to the matter, it can be solved.”
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