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SAWS Officials Try To Explain What Went Wrong During Texas Winter Storm Ahead Of External Review

Joey Palacios
Texas Public Radio

The San Antonio Water System Board received its first behind-the-scenes report on Tuesday of how the city’s water supply became largely unreliable during February’s winter blitz.

The board mostly approved of how the utility responded to the storm, pointing out power outages beyond their control led to water outages and were compounded by busted frozen pipes across the city as more than 150 hours of below freezing temperatures followed in a week.

While SAWS communicated broadly and frequently with the public through social media and newspaper, radio and television, some trustees criticized some of the public information efforts, like when water service would be restored. Mayor Ron Nirenberg also said residents needed more information on how to deal with the boil water notice.

SAWS Board Trustee Leticia Ozuna said many SAWS customer service representatives — who were expected to answer phone calls from customers — could not make it into work and lacked up-to-date information.

"When a receptionist or a call center representative was available, their information was old or stale or even worse they were not empowered to collect information," she said.

“Getting real time information to the folks that were answering the majority of those calls was indeed a challenge for us and certainly another area where we have a real improvement opportunity," said SAWS Chief Operating Officer Steve Clouse, who delivered a two hour presentation to the board.

SAWS managers were also told they could have done a better job with internal communications and coordinating emergency messages with other local agencies through the emergency operations center, or EOC. The fire department was warned to take water tankers to fire scenes.

"I think the other concern was coordinating those emergency messages with our other partners, city, CPS, through that EOC platform and using a platform that's available, I guess to all of us, so that we can push accurate information out timely," said SAWS Board Chair Jelynne LeBlanc Burley.

Clouse ended his presentation to the board with good intentions for the future.

"We know we put all of y'all in a difficult position and it is our intent to never have a repeat like that," he said.

The board stood and gave SAWS staff and crews a standing ovation for battling through the winter storm, including some working 24 hours straight, and two workers who received medical treatment for injuries.

Outside consulting firm Black & Veatch has been tapped to deliver an independent report on SAWS actions during the winter storm within 60 days.

SAWS continues to assist customers with bill relief and financial assistance with pipe damage. SAWS will also seek nearly $15 million for storm-related costs from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Board members and the mayor suggested SAWS focus on making the system more resilient in the future as global warming makes it likely weather extremes in the future with continue to play havoc with public infrastructure.

While backing up all the pumping stations with generators for water pumping would run into hundreds-of-millions of dollars, a board member suggested perhaps providing backup for some. Mayor Nirenberg also questioned the size of the SAWS service area in the face of rapid growth. He suggested water service to Fair Oaks and The Dominion should have fallen to some other entity years ago since both areas lie in hills so far north of SAWS central San Antonio pumping stations.

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