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Water conservation is 'now the most immediate priority' as Austin's power crisis worsens
(Austonia staff)

Austin officials are asking residents to immediately take steps to avoid a citywide boil-water notice, impacts to fire hydrants and a widespread lack of water service—as the city approaches nearly three full days without power amid a pandemic.

"We need to conserve water, and that, right now, is the most immediate priority," Austin Mayor Steve Adler said during a press conference Wednesday afternoon.

Until Wednesday, city officials asked residents to drip their faucets in an effort to prevent frozen and burst pipes and said there were no plans to disrupt water service. Circumstances have since changed. Dripping faucets and burst pipes have contributed to a surge in water use that threatens to outpace the available supply, mirroring the circumstances that led to mass power outages across the state.

"It may not seem like a lot of water if you drip a few faucets," Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros said. But the local utility estimates local faucet dripping is requiring 140 million gallons of water a day. When combined with burst pipes, Austin Water is seeing demand more than double the available capacity.

Southwest Austin is the most impacted area, as a water main break in the Circle C neighborhood led to a boil-water notice for affected areas.

This water crisis exacerbates the existing energy crisis. More than 30% of Austin Energy customers remain without power and may not be able to boil water that is safe to use. It is also hard for Austin Water crews to identify broken water mains because of the snow and to repair them because of ice on the roads.

Austin Water officials are asking residents who still have access to take conservation measures, such as turning off their dripping faucets and not running laundry and dishwashers.

Power update

Austin Energy announced early Wednesday afternoon that the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages about 90% of the state's power grid, had permitted the utility to restore 16 circuits across its service area. Customers who have been without power the longest are being prioritized, but General Manager Jackie Sargent warned customers that restoration will likely be short-lived because of ongoing grid issues and circuit overloads caused by lights, electronics and thermostats left on pre-outage.

Although other energy companies operating in Austin and those around the state have been able to implement rolling outages, Austin Energy is not yet able to do so because of the high number of circuits that include critical infrastructure, such as hospitals and fire stations. The utility is also unable to control power access to individual customers and instead must deal with entire circuits, Sargent said.

Federal assistance

The Biden administration is monitoring the emergency situation in Texas and has coordinated with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide assistance, including deliveries of water and blankets.

"FEMA has supplied generators to Texas and is preparing to move diesel into the state to ensure the continued availability of backup power, which of course is a major issue on the ground, to key critical infrastructure, including communications, hospitals and water," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said during the daily news briefing on Wednesday.

Vice President Kamala Harris spoke to Texans during an appearance on the Today show Wednesday morning. "I know they can't see us right now," she said. "But the president and I are thinking of them and really hope that we can do everything that is possible through the signing of the emergency orders to get federal relief to support them."

President Joe Biden declared an emergency for the state of Texas and ordered federal assistance to help with the severe winter storm on Sunday.

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