Boiling Water and Human Error
Austin’s latest boil-water notice resulted in resident inconvenience, closed businesses, and bars/restaurants forced to provide bottled water to customers. The problem giving rise to the notice has been generically described as “human error” at the Ullrich water plant, the sole source of water in south Austin.
The most pertinent information provided by Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros (resigned), during his recent appearance before City Council, was the underlying culture and workforce issues that have plagued the Ullrich plant in recent years. These continuing issues include attrition of experienced employees and vacancies at Austin Water exceeding 10%. Twenty employees left in January, the most ever in one month. According to Meszaros, the persistent turnover is diluting experience at Austin Water.
Human error does not occur in a vacuum, and a focus on individual employee(s) is usually misplaced. More often than not, human error is a result of a culture or environment created, or allowed to exist, by higher ups. Here, that is Austin City Council.
Councilmember Paige Ellis has variously been the Chair or member of the Water Oversight Committee for several years. She has defensively stated that the current issue at Ullrich is not a result of crumbling infrastructure or underfunding. Perhaps.
The issue is apparently more insidious than funding or infrastructure. Namely, the failure of City Council in general and the Water Oversight Committee in particular, to appreciate or address the people issues at Austin Water. What was the Water Oversight Committee doing (or not doing) in recent years about employee attrition at Austin Water? Demoralization or dissatisfaction of employees at Austin Water lies at the feet of City Council. Human error? There you have it.
Ellis has recently stated that city departments will be held to a high standard and should be held accountable. But deflecting blame is not what leaders do. When will City Council be held accountable?
There was a time when people followed the adage “failure is not an option.” Not so much anymore. Austin deserves better.