Water, water everywhere, . . .: With Saturday night’s boil water notice, and now 3 days without safe water, Austin Water Utility customers are shown, yet again, how mismanaged our City water and wastewater utility really is. AWU Director Greg Meszaros was scarcely qualified when he was first hired in 2007. He then proceeded to sell a bare minimum majority of the Austin City Council on building the Billion Dollar Mistake on the Lake, aka Water Treatment Plant No. 4, a plant we didn’t need and that won’t do what it was claimed to do; it cannot make water, nor make it rain, nor fill in when our other water treatment plants have problems.
How did Meszaros sell the Council and gullible local media on such a huge project? With an argument that we needed a third treatment plant to provide “redundancy” and “resilience,” that having only two water plants was too risky in light of the rise of terrorism and the growth of the city.
SOS did our research on these claims and rated them “Pants on Fire!”
Plenty of other large cities operate safely on two plants, or even one. An SOS public information request to AWU found that, in fact, the Utility’s own internal risk analysis identified power outages and the need for reliable back-up power as the top threat. Having only two plants was not even mentioned among the threats identified.
And, lo and behold, in the years following the completion of WTP No. 4, we have seen multiple water supply outages for large parts of the City: from a “turbidity” problem when a flood hit the Llano River Basin – that somehow didn’t disrupt water delivery at other cities drawing from the Highland Lakes; when chemical fire retardants sprayed by the AFD somehow got into the water system in South Austin; and then, last year, during Winter Storm Uri, when the power went out AWU couldn’t figure out how to turn on the backup water supply for the Ullrich treatment plant. In none of these instances did WTP4 help; and AWU failed to do the one thing its own analysis told it to do: keep the power on!!
Now we have a treatment upset at Ullrich and the Utility waits 12 hours to issue a boiled water notice. Meszaros admits it was “operator error” but will not give details. Like a true failed leader, he will likely blame his underlings again for the most recent chain-of-errors rather than take responsibility and resign (or retire).
Along the way Meszaros fought tooth and toenail against the City Council-appointed Austin Water Forward Task Force members’ recommendations for water conservation, water reuse, and more distributed, local, and small-scale “net zero” water solutions for Austin. He even declared he did not “have to listen” to the Task Force, storming out of a key meeting when he didn’t like the commonsense solutions offered by the Task Force to meet our future water needs.
And that’s just a short list of the problems at the Austin Water Utility. If City Manager Cronk won’t fire Meszaros, or demand his resignation, then the City Council needs to fire Cronk and hire a City Manager who will make it clear that we need, first and foremost, basic integrity and competence from all our city departments. And that competence and integrity must start at the top.