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  • Writer's pictureNorth Shore Democrats of Travis County

LV Town Hall: Decade-old ‘bandaid’ repairs led directly to LV August water crisis

by Mike Killalea, NSD president

The city of Lago Vista kicked the water can down the road one time too many back in 2013 by pursuing a “bandaid” solution to that decade’s water outage, said Director of Public Works Taylor Whichard. Whichard, who has held his job only since April 2022, detailed the causes of the August 2023 water outage, as well as steps to repair the problem, and the path forward (1).

The presentation was insightful, although some information was less than perfectly understandable to lay people.

The pump failures at LV Water Treatment Plant 1 kicked off a nearly month-long partial water shutdown for its residents — and during an unprecedented heat wave. It resulted in repairs costing the city $86,734, Whichard reported.

While water for household use was permitted, the city forbade citizens from any outdoor use, such as irrigating lawns, car washing, and even hand-watering plants. (Anyone paying attention could easily observe, though, that the city has its share of folks who apparently flaunted or were unaware of the restrictions.)

Whichard also pointed to poor past record management. “This effectively caused us to walk into this issue blind,” he said, which cost time. “The biggest issue we ran into was the schedule of seven different contractors …. We were at these contractors’ mercy.”

What happened exactly?

Whichard’s complete presentation is available at the link at the end of this article. His detailed presentation walked through history of the city’s intake 1, the resolution of the crisis, lessons learned, and the path forward. His presentation spanned about 20 minutes, with questions during the remaining 40 minutes.

While this town hall had been well publicized, and despite the August uproar, few citizens actually turned up at City Hall in person, nor does there seem to have been a huge outpouring online. (Complete disclosure: I confused the times, and did not appear, either.)

In brief, pump 1 in early August ceased pumping altogether, and pump 3 was pumping at reduced capacity. Pump 3 failed completely on Aug 5. Three pumps were replaced.

“It was determined that at current demand, the city would be at risk of a city-wide boil-water notice, if emergency restrictions weren’t implemented,” Whichard said.

This prompted the city to issue two “reverse 911s” to notify residents.

In the end, the repair teams uncovered multiple issues, including the now-infamous freshwater sponges, broken flex hoses (one of which Whichard characterized as “flayed open”), “fried” electrical components,” and a lack of parts.

Pump 1’s issues were stubborn, and it was not fully up and running until Aug 30. The next day, all restrictions were lifted.

Whichard and his public-works team have identified a number of permanent repair needs, including the installation of two 40-foot flex hoses from the barge discharge pipe to each intake casing.

“This will allow the barge to move as the lake goes,” Whichard said. The barge sucks water from Lake Travis to the city’s treatment plants.

Other permanent needs, he said, are:

  • Install separate electrical control panel and SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) package for barge;

  • Remove existing “substandard” electrical cabling powering the barge;

  • Install two electrical cables within conduit from electrical panel to emergency barge;

  • Replace existing swing-gate system marine-grade gate valve and second intake screen;

  • Install “tapping saddle” and “suck-out point” over the four-inch holes cored into the both casings. (The tapping saddle will fit saddle-like over the four-inch holes in each of the two pipes, securing the connection. It and the suck-out point will allow easier maintenance and cleaining of the intake pipes, Whichard explained to the clueless author in a private conversation. Any errors in this explanation are the author’s.)

These repairs are currently out for bids, City Manager Tracie Hlavinka said at the town hall.

What caused the breakdown?

While a formal failure report is forthcoming, Whichard said the base cause is that the pumps were “essentially starved of water causing them to overwork.” This resulted from a combination of low lake levels, a closed lower intake screen (unbeknownst to staff), the previously mentioned undocumented four-inch holes cored into the bottoms of two casing strings; and marine debris being sucked into the pumps through the four-inch hole.

How much water?

The amount of water usage in drought-ridden Central Texas is increasingly under scrutiny. In 2022, the latest year for which records are available, the annual average water usage in Lago Vista was about 46 million gallons per month, Whichard told me. The intake pipe sits at about 605-615 mean sea level.


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