Paranoia

This morning, I received a “boil water” notice from the university. I immediately searched the news to investigate the exact reason – is the water contaminated, and what is it contaminated with?

However, all that I could find were two vague reports from city officials about how the treatment plants were overloaded from silt due to flooding, and that Lake Travis was only four feet away from spilling over the dam. Pressed to maintain a water pressure adequate enough for fire hoses to remain usable, the city decided to “reduce” the treatment of the water to allow enough water to be supplied, such that it is no longer at the “high standards” that the city provides for potable water.

But water treatment systems are not a black box; they are a multi-stage process! What stage of the treatment was hastened; or are stages being bypassed entirely? Surely, the filtration for particulate matter is being reduced, but the chlorine process should still be keeping the water sterile. However, none of these questions can be answered due to the vagueness of the report.

Affected treatment plants? Undisclosed. Particulate matter and bacteria reports? Nonexistent, assuming the Austin website actually works right now, which it does not.

Here is the main contradiction in their statement:

WHY IS THE BOIL WATER NOTICE IMPORTANT Inadequately treated water may contain harmful bacteria, viruses, and parasites which can cause symptoms such as diarrhea, cramps, nausea, headaches, or other symptoms.

But earlier in their statement, they stated the following:

It’s important to note that there have been no positive tests for bacterial infiltration of the system at this time.

So what bacteria am I going to kill from boiling water?

All that I can conclude is that the city of Austin is spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt of the water quality simply to reduce stress on the system, without presenting hard evidence that the water is indeed unsafe to drink. Boiling water will not eliminate particulate matter, and from the aforementioned press release, “city officials” (whoever those are) have explicitly stated that bacteria has not yet contaminated treatment plants, so there is no bacteria to kill from boiling water.

One benefit to treatment plant operators from this warning, however, is that they now have free reign over which stages they wish to reduce or bypass, including the disinfection stage. However, due to the lack of transparency, there is no information to ascertain which stages are being bypassed – the water can really be of any quality right now, and it could even be still perfectly fine.

My questioning of this warning stems from a fundamental distrust in government decisions and communication to its citizens. People simply echo the same message, without seeming to place much thought into it: “Boil water. Boil water. Boil water.” And on the other hand, city officials might state that the treated water is completely safe to drink, despite findings of statistically significant lead concentration in some schools!

I’ll comply out of an abundance of caution (and because noncompliance has social implications), but mindless compliance and echoing of vague mass messages should not be the goal of the government. Individuals should be able to obtain enough information to make an informed decision and understand the rationale of the government in its own decisions.


It is now the next day since the announcement of the restrictions, and the technical details surrounding the problem remain vague. It seems that the restriction has indeed granted free license for treatment plant operators to modify treatment controls as they see fit, without necessarily needing to meet criteria for potable water. Moreover, it appears that the utility has known about this problem for quite some time now, and only now have they decided to take drastic action to prevent a water shortage.

I would not trust this water until the utility produces details of actions being taken in these treatment plants to fix this mess up.

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