Most Austinites should have 'water to boil' by Monday, distribution sites are being set up and power restoration continues
After several winter storms and six days of subfreezing temperatures, Austin residents can expect details Friday evening about water distribution sites and "substantial improvement" in water service by Monday, although the boil water notice is likely to last into next week, city officials said during an afternoon press conference.
"Obviously it is much better to have water to boil and use than to not have water at all," Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros said.
The boil water notice took effect Wednesday evening, as most Austin Water customers had no water to actually boil or very low water pressure. Despite significant progress in restoring power, more than 20,000 Austin Energy customers—or around 4%—are still experiencing outages caused by equipment damage, which will likely take days to repair, General Manager Jackie Sargent said.
Heading into the weekend, after a disastrous week, officials answered some pressing questions, including where to find safe water, whether to keep up conservation measures and how the roads are looking.
1. When will water be restored?
Meszaros expects most Austin Water customers currently experiencing outages will see improvements by Monday. "I anticipate through the weekend the majority of our customers will see significant improvements in regards to pressure," he said.
However, this does not mean that service will be totally back to normal. "Customers may go from no water pressure to low water pressure," he said, or see discoloration. "This can be a kind of gradual improvement of service."
Austin Water is making progress—"literally, every hour it's getting better," Meszaros said—restoring pressure to its system central zone, which feeds outlying zones, and area hospitals, which are the utility's top priority.
The boil water notice is likely to last into next week for two reasons:
- Austin Water first needs to restore pressure and resolve outages, which will involve manual leak repairs and time to refill its reservoirs.
- There are state requirements for sampling and testing.
2. I don't have water (or if I do I don't have power to boil it). Where can I find safe water?
Residents can expect details on public water distribution sites later today as water deliveries begin to arrive in the Austin area.
Sites will likely operate from sunup to sundown and impose limits of one case of water per car, City Manager Spencer Cronk said. Their locations are being chosen for ease of public access given the current road conditions. The city is also working to coordinate water deliveries to vulnerable residents, such as the elderly and homeless.
The city ordered one million gallons of water in 16-ounce bottles from six surrounding states that are due to arrive starting Friday evening. FEMA also airlifted water from Fort Worth this afternoon. In addition to these bulk purchases, the city is also coordinating smaller deliveries intended for hospitals, shelters and warming centers.
Many local businesses are also distributing free water. A list can be found here.
Water supplies are limited. "If you are able to purchase water, we encourage you to do so," Cronk said.
On the ground here at the Millennium, with about 40 of my best friends and a whole lotta water and food. pic.twitter.com/n9pTUHKW7M
— Natasha Harper-Madison (@NatashaD1atx) February 19, 2021
3. I still don't have power. What is the holdup and when can I expect it to return?
As of 3:05 p.m., 20,424 Austin Energy customers are still without power. These outages are no longer due to ERCOT-mandated outages, which officials announced had ended Friday morning as supply currently outpaces demand. Instead, they are the result of weather-related equipment damage and will take "several days" to repair, Sargent said.
"Our hardest days for Austin Energy still lie ahead of us," she added.
4. Should I still be conserving water and power?
Yes and yes.
Water conservation measures are already having an impact as Austin Water is currently producing more water than is being used, which is helping the utility refill its reservoirs and restore pressure to its system's central zone.
Customers with water should continue to avoid taking showers, running the dishwasher or doing laundry until water service is restored citywide, Meszaros said.
Austin Energy customers with power should also continue to conserve. Although ERCOT officials are "no longer asking for energy conservation," according to a Friday morning update, Sargent asked Austinites to reduce their use.
ERCOT operations have returned to normal, and we are no longer asking for energy conservation. Thanks for helping the grid during this very difficult time.
— ERCOT (@ERCOT_ISO) February 19, 2021
"There are still a large number of customers that have not been energized yet, so their demand is not being accounted for yet," she said. "I would ask customers, as we continue to work through this, to please continue to conserve."
5. What can I expect from my utility bills?
It's still too early to tell, but residents are understandably concerned about price gouging.
Screenshots circulated on Twitter Monday showing two-star hotels in Austin listing rooms for nearly $1,000 a night, as hundreds of residents went without power in subfreezing temperatures. On Tuesday, the Daily Beast published a story that featured Royce Pierce, a Texas contractor whose February heating bill is nearly $8,000—only three weeks in—compared to the $387.70 he paid to heat his home in January. Comstock Resources, a shale driller that operates in Texas, held an earnings call on Wednesday as natural gas prices surged. "Obviously, this week is like hitting the jackpot," President and CFO Roland Burns told investors, according to multiple reports.
Local elected officials took notice. Travis County Judge Andy Brown issued an order Tuesday that prohibited price gouging, which is illegal during a disaster. Travis County Attorney Delia Garza's office created a resource page about price gouging to "educate the public and deter illegal activity," she said during an emergency Commissioners Court meeting on Friday. Austin Mayor Steve Adler announced a special City Council meeting on Tuesday, where members will discuss "fee waivers and other relief" measures, according to a message board post.
People have lost power, water, income, and can hardly pay for food. The leaders at our utilities understand this & want to get to a solution. If utility bill relief requires state and federal help to fully accomplish, we will demand it. But we need to get it done. 👇
— Gregorio Casar (@GregCasar) February 19, 2021
Austin Water is working with the city manager to provide "a menu of options" to customers seeking financial assistance or relief after dripping faucets and burst pipes caused water usage citywide to more than double. "Certainly, Austin Water doesn't want to reap any financial benefit from this ice storm," Meszaros said.
Sargent said Austin Energy does not yet have enough information to predict rate impacts. "That is information that will be forthcoming," she added.
6. What has been done to ensure Austin's homeless residents have access to shelter and other services during this crisis?
Around 1,500 people—a mix of homeless residents and those without power at home—slept at city shelters and warming centers as of Wednesday night, Cronk said. This figure does not include those who stayed at the Austin Disaster Relief Network's faith-based shelters.
The city's police, fire and EMS departments also sent staff to more than 45 homeless encampments to offer rides to shelters and around 550 homeless residents were contacted via a texting alert system with information about resources.
Exposure-related deaths among homeless residents have been reported in Houston and Abilene. Austin Mutual Aid and other grassroots organizations have stepped in locally, providing food deliveries and covering hotel costs.
7. Is it safe to drive or walk around the city yet?
Things are improving.
The Austin Fire Department reported "a sudden uptick in traffic accidents" on Thursday evening as temperatures fell and roads began to ice over again, but call volume has since trended downward, according to Cronk and Austin-Travis County EMS.
City crews are still working to clear priority streets around the city. As of Friday afternoon, they had cleared more than 180 lane miles. But because of ongoing icy conditions, Public Works Director Richard Mendoza asked residents to limit travel only to necessary trips and stick to major corridors. "We do want the community to remain vigilant," he said.
Another concern is traffic lights. Most of the city's signals have been impacted by power loss, and crews are working to restore most by Monday morning, prioritizing those at major intersections. Residents who encounter a dead signal should treat it as a four-way stop, Mendoza said.
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Former Travis County Commissioner Ron Davis, a long-time advocate for Austin's Eastern Crescent, died at 75 on Tuesday night.
Davis was a member of the commissioners court for 18 years as the representative of Travis County's Precinct 1. A fourth-generation Austin native, Davis advocated for the community far before his position as commissioner, making a name for himself as a leader in closing a gasoline storage facility that was polluting the area in the 1980s and 1990s.
After being elected in 1998, Davis became a representative for minority communities and fought against gerrymandering and environmental degradation in northeast Travis County. Among his many accomplishments, Davis's son Ron Davis Jr. told the Austin American-Statesman that he was proudest of bringing the Austin Community College campus into the precinct.
After Davis' retirement in 2017, current Precinct 1 Commissioner Jeff Travillion took his place. Travillion, who has worked to continue Davis' legacy as an East Austin representative, paid his respects to Davis in a written statement.
"Today, Travis County's African-American community mourns the loss of a giant," Travillion wrote. "Commissioner Ron Davis spent decades fighting for the people of eastern Travis County, working to improve the quality of life in the Eastern Crescent. He was a trailblazer whose love for the Eastern Crescent was only surpassed by his love for his family. I offer my sincere condolences to Commissioner Davis' family and friends."
Davis was also mourned on social media by friends, family and coworkers. In a written statement, U.S. Congressman Lloyd Doggett shared his thoughts on the death of his longtime friend.
"Ron was a compassionate, collaborative but forceful, voice for our neighbors in Eastern Travis County," Doggett said. " Ron acted effectively in response to our neighbors' concerns, especially with regard to environmental degradation. As a fourth-generation Austinite and graduate of Huston-Tillotson University, he brought understanding to his calls for justice and opportunity for all. He was my longtime friend and our strong advocate."
Davis is survived by his wife, Annie, his three children and six grandchildren.
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Austin may soon be home to a tech plant that would dwarf the Tesla Gigafactory in both investment and job creation.
Samsung Electronics Co. is considering starting construction on a $10 billion memory chip plant in Austin as soon as this year, Bloomberg reported Friday.
The Samsung plant would compete with industry leader Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., which is scheduled to begin construction on a $12 billion semiconductor factory in Phoenix later this year.
Samsung is capitalizing on a federal effort to draw advanced manufacturing plants away from Asia, Bloomberg reported.
Samsung Austin Semiconductor LLC purchased roughly 258 acres of land in Northeast Austin in late October, near its existing chip manufacturing plant. Last month, Austin City Council approved a rezoning request from the company to allow for industrial use.
"The proposed (zoning) agreement will reflect almost the same conditions approved on the current Samsung Austin Semiconductor site," Case Manager Sherri Sirwaitis wrote in a staff report submitted to the council.
Samsung opened its first Austin plant in 1997 and has since expanded its campus, which now spans roughly 300 acres and employs around 3,000 people, according to the Austin Business Journal.
The company also has a long history of working with state and local governments on tax incentive deals. Between 2009 and 2019, Travis County rebated Samsung $65 million as part of an ongoing incentives agreement.
One of the people close to the matter told Bloomberg that the company may go ahead without such an incentives agreement. But the Travis County Commissioners Court is scheduled to consider whether to accept an application for an economic incentive agreement on Tuesday. A spokesperson would not say which company has filed the application—nicknamed "Project Silicon Silver."
Travis County commissioners last considered an unnamed economic incentives agreement application in May 2020, which was later revealed to have been filed by Tesla. They later approved a multimillion-dollar incentives agreement for the electric automaker, which is currently building a $1.1 billion Gigafactory in Southeast Travis County.
In response to criticism regarding the agreement, Travis County commissioners voted unanimously last month to amend its economic incentives policy to include community input requirements. As a result, if commissioners vote to accept the Project Silicon Silver application, the court will be required to post draft agreements publicly and host public hearings before taking action on any incentive agreement.
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The Travis County Commissioners Court voted unanimously to amend its economic development incentives—or, colloquially, property tax breaks—policy to include community input requirements.
The amendment "really came out of the whole Tesla negotiations," Commissioner Brigid Shea said on Tuesday, referring to the county's decision to enter into an economic incentive agreement with the electric car manufacturer earlier this year.
Union representatives and others criticized the county for what they said was an opaque process that left little time for residents to voice their concerns.
Those same advocates applauded the decision, but some also pointed out that the commissioners were scheduled to discuss whether to accept an application for another possible economic incentive agreement—referred to only as "Project Silicon Silver"—behind closed doors on the same day.
Jeremy Hendricks, a representative of the Laborers International union, which represents thousands of Texas construction and service workers, urged commissioners to apply the updated policy to Project Silicon Silver.
"I do find it troubling that you have (an item) on the agenda … to take action on another seemingly secretive deal," he said on a call into the court. "We believe this process must have input from the community."
Travis County spokesperson Hector Nieto would not say which company had applied for an incentives deal but confirmed that the policy change would apply to any agreement considered moving forward.
The new policy, which mostly mirrors the city of Austin's, requires the Commissioners Court to post draft agreements publicly and host two public hearings, as well as accept written comments, before taking action on any such deals.
Eden Meyers, a member of the local nonprofit Advocates for Social Justice Reform, supported the decision.
"I was just over the moon when Tesla announced that they were coming to Austin," she said during public comment. "That said, Tesla does not have a good reputation as a corporate citizen … and I definitely think when we're talking about spending this kind of money in the county we need the opportunity for the community to have input on that."
This amendment to the economic development agreement comes as the court continues to reconsider its economic development priorities, which have recently shifted away from providing tax breaks to large corporations, such as Tesla and Samsung, in favor of providing assistance to local businesses.
Commissioners voted to "pause" accepting new applications for economic incentive agreements in July 2019 after the Texas Legislature approved a property tax revenue cap, which limits how much property tax revenue local governments can collect.
"We simply cannot afford to give preferential tax treatment to our wealthiest corporate citizens, or prospective wealthy corporate citizens, under a 3.5% revenue cap," former Travis County Judge and current State Sen. Sarah Eckhardt said at the time.
Then in December, the court voted unanimously to adopt a new economic development strategic plan that prioritizes helping local businesses and workers' rights.
Amid the pandemic—and the economic recession it occasioned—the court voted to lift its moratorium in May to consider a special project, which was later revealed to be a proposed Tesla Gigafactory.
The Commissioners Court did not name the company or publicly discuss the proposed agreement until June 24.
Less than three weeks later, commissioners approved a multi-million dollar incentives agreement in exchange for 5,000 new jobs and a minimum wage of $15 an hour, including for construction workers employed by contractors and subcontractors.
We are excited to announce @Tesla has chosen Travis County for its newest Gigafactory site! This will bring an esti… https://t.co/JcylFQVWeA— Travis County TX (@Travis County TX)1595456684.0
Union representatives were critical of the court's decision and said commissioners could have demanded more from Tesla, which they argued had "a troubled history" with taxpayer subsidies and workplace safety.
The updated policy is intended to allow the public a chance to provide input on proposed deals as well as to ensure commissioners have time to incorporate their feedback in the final version.
"It really is very out of date, very traditional economic development policy and not the progressive policy that you're seeing other jurisdictions move toward—and that Travis County wants to move toward," said Diana Ramirez, the county's director of economic development and strategic development.
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