Austin Issues Unprecedented Boil-Water Order in Wake of Extreme Flooding

Illustration for article titled Austin Issues Unprecedented Boil-Water Order in Wake of Extreme Floodingem/em
Photo: John Kay (Flickr )

Rain has been messing with central Texas. And in an effort to make sure it doesn’t mess with residents’ guts, Austin issued an order for the entire city to boil its water on Monday.


The city didn’t say when it expects the ban to end, and that coupled with the unprecedented nature of the city-wide order has sent people scrambling to H-E-Bs to snatch up bottled water. The Statesman reports that schools are not serving fresh food that requires washing and are also trucking in bottled water.

The scenes are a picture of the impacts of climate change, which is making heavy downpours more common and puts extra stress on infrastructure.


“Anyone who’s seen the water running through Lady Bird Lake can see how muddy it is,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said, according to the Statesman.

The issue stems from extreme rainfall that hit central Texas last week . Up to 12 inches of rain fell across a swath of the region, in many places the more than 800 percent of the weekly average according to data collected by the High Plains Regional Climate Center. In addition to wreaking havoc on bridges and other infrastructure, all that water ran off into streams and rivers, creating raging torrents of muddy, brown water. That includes the Lower Colorado River, which is controlled by a series of dammed lakes and includes Austin Lake, which provides water for the city of nearly a million.

The silt has filled up lakes and made it nigh impossible for Austin Water Utility treatment plants to keep up. In addition to the boil order, the city is also asking residents to curtail water use by dialing back on the dishwashing and outdoor gardening. According to NPR, the city is usually able to process 300 million gallons of water per day, but capacity is down to just 100 million gallons right now.


The lower capacity and more gunk in the water raises the risk of waterborne illness. The city has been testing its drinking water for bacteria and while the results have been negative so far, the concerns are still real.

And so is the connection with climate change. While there aren’t any attribution studies yet linking last week’s deluge to our warming climate, extreme rainfall events are becoming markedly more common around the country. The reason is simple: A warmer atmosphere holds more water—about 7 percent more for every degree Celsius the temperature rises, to be exact. Texas has seen an 8 percent increase in the top 1 percent of all rainfall events, according to an analysis by Climate Central (disclosure: I used to work there and nominally helped with this analysis). The city of Austin, meanwhile, has seen a 67 percent increase in extreme rainfall.


All that rain puts a lot of stress on the infrastructure people rely on, from roads to water. Hurricane Harvey demonstrated this last year, and now we’re seeing it again in central Texas. But taken together, these and the mounting number of heavy rain events elsewhere show it’s not just Texas getting messed with it. It’s all of us.

Managing editor, Earther

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Dense non aqueous phase liquid

123% - That’s like Texas full.

Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) website

Where those lakes and rivers at?

The USGS and the LCRA have an awesome hydrology thingy called a hydromet

Current lake levels by basin:

Please note: I’m obsessed with public water supply data. Chiefly because it’s become so readily available. Yet you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Idiot horse. All this public data will be gone soon so we’ll go back to being pug stupid fucks. Like any casual observers really gives a fuck about water. If you have a problem with this or any comment that goes beyond a breezy take on water then talk to my psychiatrist.