City reacts to water woes, looks to future

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN
Managing Editor

On a normal, sunny Central Texas day, City of Liberty Hill water customers turn on the tap and have access to all the water they can use.

But throw a record-breaking winter weather event into the mix and things change quickly. Late last week the tap ran dry, even for those whose pipes didn’t freeze.

The outage that eventually ran Liberty Hill dry centered on the loss of power at the Leander water treatment plant, which is where all of Liberty Hill’s water – aside from four City wells – comes from.

A drop in pressure led to a boil water notice on Feb. 16, and the next day the City’s two storage tanks were empty.

Tanks were finally filled by Wednesday, Feb. 24, but the boil water notice remained as the City worked to get potable water to area residents. The outage at the treatment plant was fixed by Friday, but replenishing clean water for two cities does not happen quickly.

“It takes days to fill the tanks, depending on the pressure,” said City Administrator Lacie Hale. “That’s why it’s taking so long to fill them because we don’t have enough pressure.”

Without full tanks and adequate pressure in Leander, there was no way to get tanks filled up the road in Liberty Hill.

“They’re in the same boat we are as far as being able to build pressure and fill towers,” Hale said. “They’re dealing with that, too. For them to put enough pressure to send it our way they have to build the pressure in their system.”

There was little warning of the problem as many cities and water service providers across the state dealt with sudden outages due to the rolling power outages or the extreme cold that damaged equipment.

“I had been on county calls all week, but as far as communication between us and Leander it wasn’t quite there yet,” Hale said. “I had our water superintendent reach out to his counterpart in Leander and that’s when we realized it was going to be days before we saw water. They had issues with their generators, which we all did, but we couldn’t really prepare for this because we didn’t know what was coming.”

The issue was never a question of adequate water supply, but instead the treatment of that water. Liberty Hill has water rights to two million gallons per day.

“We have water rights from Lake Travis, so the water comes in from Lake Travis, Leander treats it and that’s what is pushed to Liberty Hill,” Hale said. “We have two million gallons a day available through our agreement with the City of Leander. We are well suited to accommodate our customers, including the new Butler Farms development where there are supposed to be 1,200 new homes. We are in a good position for quite some time.”

Water distribution
The first water distribution stations began Feb. 18 when community businesses, as well as Georgetown Public Works and Williamson County began delivering water to the area.

Distribution has been daily for both non-potable and potable water for area residents, and between Friday and Tuesday Hale said there had been nearly 3,000 gallons of potable water brought into Liberty Hill and distributed by City staff.

“We’ve realized that not only are we here for our residents but those all over the county,” Hale said. “We’ve had people from Hutto, Florence, Thrall and Austin coming to get water. That’s fantastic because we’re here to serve.”

The City announced Wednesday that it would continue to distribute water through Friday, but residents are encouraged to monitor the City website or Facebook page for updates. A potable and non-potable refill station, where residents can refill their own bottles, will be open at Wetzel Park through March 1.

Other issues
While water was out completely for a number of days, the wastewater treatment plant continued to function with only a few issues.

“We had flow concerns but we were able to mitigate those concerns,” Hale said. “We’re able to treat and able to continue operations at our plant even through all this. Some of our infrastructure had frozen so it caused a few hiccups, but we were able to keep operating and treating.”

Hale also anticipates having some road repair issues to address in the aftermath of the storm.

“We’re going to start doing tours of town, especially with streets and maintenance, to see what roads are more impacted than others,” Hale said. “We have to assess our roads because even down on the Loop there is pothole after pothole. That’s something we will have a plan of action to mitigate.”

One issue that many people dealt with was tree and limb loss, but crews began addressing those problems very early in the storm which minimized problems for the City.

“On Thursday and Friday (Feb. 11-12), when this started to hit, the streets and maintenance crew went out and started trimming some of the trees in the right of way, so there was less impact there,” Hale said, adding there would be more tree issues to address in some areas.

Current infrastructure
The water line from Leander comes up CR 279, hooking into Leander’s system at CR 281. Liberty Hill has two towers, one with a capacity of 150,000 gallons and the second 50,000 gallons.

Liberty Hill also has four active well sites, but they also were not operating during the storm last week.

“We are limited with power on those wells because there’s no backup generator on them, so if there’s no power they can’t pump,” Hale said.

Even if they had been operational, the wells would not have met daily demand as they are currently pumping about 250 gallons per minute total, which is a maximum of about 60,000 gallons in a 24-hour period.

Future planning
Future planning for water access is one of the issues the City will be looking closely at in coming weeks and months as all aspects of how the community was impacted by this storm will be reviewed.

“Next week when we get back to reality with offices open again, we’re going to have a few roundtables with each department to go day by day and understand what their needs were, how they were met and how we can better meet those needs in the future,” Hale said.

And once there is a clearer picture of what happened and why, the issue will be brought to the City Council to consider options.

“We will have this discussion with Council to better situate ourself as a city for if we do need a bigger shelter for our residents, like if we need an amendment to our community center (project) to get a generator there,” Hale said. “Now we’re thinking community wide, not just about our infrastructure.”

As far as water treatment, Hale expects future discussions on when the City might build its own plant.

With a daily average usage of 400,000 gallons among its 1,300 water customers, it is not practical yet for Liberty Hill to have its own treatment plant.

“One solution, which is a five to seven year solution, is that we build our own water treatment plant,” Hale said. “That’s the direction I would like to take as a city is to get that done so we can be more self sufficient. It will take some time, and right now it would be about $30 million.”

That cost would include the treatment plant and a pipeline to Lake Travis.
The growth in the number of water customers in the City will play a key role in when that happens.

The City is still in negotiation to purchase Georgetown’s western water service area, which would more than triple the number of customers in Liberty Hill, adding about 4,500 customers.

Hale said the City was in the midst of a feasibility study to determine whether taking that on was the right move. Those negotiations have been going on since early 2018.

Liberty Hill had about 800 water customers just two years ago.

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