Rollingwood City Council met Feb. 24 to discuss how Winter Storm Uri impacted the city’s water system. (Brian Rash/Community Impact Newspaper)

During the unprecedented Winter Storm Uri, cities across Texas grappled with icy conditions, electricity outages and water service interruptions.

These difficulties were particularly felt by the city of Rollingwood and its public works staff. At one point, officials said, the city came seriously close to turning off its water supply in order to prevent an overflow of wastewater.

“We were on the cusp of making a decision as to whether or not to cut off water service to our entire city or, alternatively, overflow our lift stations and flow raw sewage into direct channels into Lady Bird Lake,” Mayor Michael Dyson said during a Feb. 24 City Council meeting.

This was due in part to widespread power outages that impacted six of the city’s seven lift stations, which are facilities designed to move wastewater.

As a result, Rollingwood enlisted a subcontractor to move a sole portable generator across icy streets between each station to keep them operational, according to City Administrator Amber Lewis.

Council members reported that these challenges were exacerbated by a lack of communication from the city’s longtime water and wastewater management company, AWR Services. This led council to evaluate AWR’s performance during the Feb. 24 meeting.

Rollingwood serves as a wholesale water provider through the city of Austin, which means the water is treated by Austin before it is distributed to Rollingwood, Lewis told Community Impact Newspaper.

The city has contracted with AWR for wastewater and water operations for roughly 16 years. Under that contract, AWR is responsible for operations, on-site maintenance and water emergencies.

According to council’s discussion, Rollingwood staff received an email from AWR the morning of Feb. 15 stating that AWR crews would not respond to service requests in the city of Rollingwood as long as road conditions remained dangerous.

“I think we all need to recognize this was a disaster situation, not just a normal storm,” AWR CEO Hal Lanham told council.

Lanham stated that amid his company’s first attempt to reach the city, two men fell on ice, one truck went off the road, and another crew member was stopped by a police officer and asked not to travel.

AWR was without electricity for five days, according to Lanham, who said employees were not present in the office to respond to calls. Still, he said, when the pump stations in Rollingwood failed, a corresponding alert should have been sent through AWR’s messaging service.

However, city officials said the company did not appropriately respond to these alerts, which Lanham said was the result of an influx of emergency messages.

“We couldn’t get a hold of anybody. We were desperate,” Lewis told Lanham. “The feeling of shutting off water, damage to property, damage to Lady Bird Lake: I can’t tell you the enormous stress we were under.”

Ultimately, Rollingwood staff made contact with a contractor who was able to reach the city and perform the services needed to keep the wastewater system functioning.

Additionally, Lewis said AWR did not communicate the need to enact a boil-water advisory in a timely manner. Due to the storm, AWR could not perform traditional water quality chlorine tests during the week of Feb. 15.

Rollingwood preemptively distributed a boil notice to residents Feb. 17 after the city of Austin issued a notice that the Ullrich Water Treatment Plant had lost electricity. According to Lewis, AWR did not inform the city of Rollingwood of the necessity to issue such a notice until Feb. 19.

“That would have been two days of drinking compromised water,” Lewis said.

Lanham said AWR always notifies its customers of a boil-water notice and told council that he believes his company is being blamed for a catastrophic event.

“The bottom line is every utility company in the entire area struggled the same way,” Lanham said.

Council Member Amy Pattillo said city staff understands the challenges associated with the natural disaster. Still, she said, communicating properly would not have required AWR staff to put themselves in danger.

Following the discussion, City Council members entered into an executive session with the city attorney to further review services with AWR. No action was taken after council returned.

Be safe and make sure to boil your water or consider buying a water filtration system like the AquaOx Water Filter.

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