The student-run newspaper of the Liberal Arts and Science Academy

The Liberator

The student-run newspaper of the Liberal Arts and Science Academy

The Liberator

The student-run newspaper of the Liberal Arts and Science Academy

The Liberator

Q&A With an Austin Water Expert

Martin Tower is a Managing Engineer at Austin Water, the city of Austin’s public water utility, where he leads the infrastructure management division. He oversees the distribution of capital funds to different departments of the company. In the past few years, Austin has endured numerous droughts, unexpected storms, and floods. His team is working to preserve our resources and inform the community about how they can help.

Sarrat: What steps are the city currently taking to conserve water?

Tower: We treasure our rivers and streams in our community. People come here because [they] love these things. The city really is a national leader when it comes to environmental stewardship and water conservation. Water Forward is Austin’s innovative water conservation plan for how we manage the resource that is our water system. A portfolio of strategies are being pursued by the city such as enhancing water conservation, expanding water reuse, and protecting water sources. 

What are the main causes of boil water notices; I know we’ve had a lot in the past few years… why is it happening more often?

Austin Water is responsible and is the resource for water. In Austin, we are fortunate to be able to provide fresh water to people’s homes and businesses. This is not true in every community in the world, and as water travels from Lake Travis and Lake Austin through the treatment facilities and into our vast underground network of pipes, we rely upon a multi-barrier approach to ensure that we deliver high-quality water. If there’s ever any disruption to these systems, that’s when we instruct customers to temporarily boil their water until the system’s issues are resolved and we’re confident in the water quality. This is also required by our state regulators, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Boil water notices come because there is some sort of system disruption. The boil water events that we have experienced in the past years resulted from different issues including extraordinary weather events and a treatment process upset. Just like our community, we’re learning from these unprecedented events and we’re taking steps to advance the resilience of the water system with every new experience.

Do you think that extraordinary weather events contribute to the contamination of our waterways?

In 2018, there was a major flooding event. This was the first time that the floodgates at the Mansfield Dam had opened [in years]. This was historic flooding. And at that time what was incredible for us was not that there were high levels of water, or even that it impaired water quality, [it was that] when all the muck and filth got churned up, it resulted in much lower quality water flowing down the river. What was really difficult was that it was a one-two punch with water quality that was about 50 times worse than usual, 50 times as much sediment in the water. This lasted for several days. Typically, we would just not bring the low-quality water into the plants. After a few days of rain, the water quality improved and we could begin to drink water again. In that episode, it lasted several days, longer than we’ve seen in the past, which is why we had to issue the boil water notice. Another extraordinary weather event was Winter Storm Uri, which was the cold weather snap that we had a few years back, and that was extraordinary in a different way. The state of Texas hadn’t really experienced that in living memory, and we had massive power outages that affected a number of people. Our water demand went up as a result of breaks in people’s homes and in the system. With that, the power outages proved to be challenging for us because we only have one system. Those are two very extraordinary weather events that were at the heart of those boil water notices. 

What specific changes have you noticed in Austin waterways and our major waterways that have affected your job and Austin Water as a whole?

Specific to the waterways, fortunately, the source of our drinking water, which is Lake Austin and Lake Travis, hasn’t been as affected by the harmful algal blooms that we’ve seen in other parts. But, what we have seen is that there are zebra mussels. Those have really shown up, and that was something that we didn’t need to be concerned with ten years ago, but now we have to increase our cleaning and condition assessment to [ensure] that our intakes are clear of zebra mussels. It just adds another element to the work we do to try and provide the community with the water that it needs.

What is the future of Austin’s water sources and what can be done to protect them?

We live in close proximity to our neighbors, which is [part] of what makes cities like Austin great, but it also presents us with challenges. Climate uncertainty means we not only need to manage our water supplies in the face of growing demands that come with increased temperatures and sustained droughts, but also just improve our systems that now need to perform in a wider range of conditions than were anticipated. And these wide ranges of conditions are both hotter and colder… So, you know, water affects us all, and through efforts such as Water Forward, we’re working to bring together experts and representatives from across our diverse community to ensure our water future. By working together and keeping this on the top of our minds, we’re able to be confident in what our community has before it.

How do you think LASA students specifically can make efforts to conserve water?

Simple things like taking shorter showers and turning off the tap when you’re brushing your teeth. These can be done straight away and are very personal decisions that you don’t need to convince others to do, and it reminds us that water is precious. At the household level: fixing leaky toilets makes a big impact, installing water-saving devices like faucet aerators (which people can get for free through Austin utility), and adhering to lawn-watering restrictions. You know, we are in a stage 2 drought, and you’re only really allowed to water your lawn on your designated day of the week. If you search ‘saving water Austin’, some quick links will pop up with tips for water saving. Also, the Water Forward plan I’ve talked about was made very much to engage with the community to develop a 100-year water plan, and they are now kicking off an update to that, including an invitation for the community to get engaged. Students who are really interested can participate in public involvement at events, and they can actually become water ambassadors.

Search for Austin Water Forward to find multiple different ways for people to help and get involved.

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