Rock Beats

Crisis management: Utilities respond to water emergency

Jessica Woods, Christy Justice and Misty Bull helped answer calls and get information out to the public during the water emergency in October


On Oct. 7, the City of Round Rock had to enact emergency water restrictions because of mechanical problems at Lake Stillhouse Hollow that required the pumps to be shut off on Oct. 5. These pumps transfer water from Lake Stillhouse Hollow to Lake Georgetown, which is the City of Round Rock’s main water source.  That meant all outdoor watering was prohibited during repairs that were expected to take two weeks. It also meant that our Utilities and Environmental Services Department staff was inundated with calls and questions.


Deep end
“It was panic mode around here,” says Christy Justice, administrative assistant. “Lake Georgetown was already only about 34 percent full. Without water coming from Lake Stillhouse Hollow, the level at Lake Georgetown was dropping drastically. It was scary.”


Employees’ main concern was getting accurate information out to the City’s water customers, including businesses that depend on water, like car washes.


“We tried to contact all the car washes directly to keep them updated on the situation,” says Christy. “They were shut down completely for a little over a week. Power washing businesses were also directly affected. We received a lot of calls about them.”


Staff also had to contact the media to make sure they had the latest updates.


“I was coordinating with the media and occasionally they got some information wrong,” says Christy. “That created some headaches.”


Round Rock is one of four entities that get their water from the Brazos River Authority (BRA) through the Lake Georgetown-Lake Stillhouse Hollow system. The BRA was responsible for making the repairs to the system.


“We were also communicating with the City Council, the Brazos River Authority and the other entities that get their water from Lake Georgetown,” says Jessica Woods, water conservation specialist. “Not all the entities applied the same restrictions, so we had to deal with questions about that.”


Pulling together
Overall, our residents’ response to the crisis was outstanding. Water consumption dropped immediately and to levels below the goal the City had set.


Staff, too, pulled together to get things done.


“We had a lot of people who shared in the work,” says Jessica. “We had crews put out signs and door hangers. We had people from all departments who answered phones and provided information. We had updates on our website and Facebook. We got information out as fast as we could. Everyone was very focused.”


Of course, staff had to handle a lot of phone calls, many from angry and upset residents.


“Dealing with angry callers was one of the biggest challenges,” says Christy. “It was a complex situation and it was important to keep the information straight while at the same time trying to calm callers down. People were upset that they couldn’t water and that their trees were dying. They were mad about the situation and how it could happen. They were angry when we didn’t allow car washes and then others were mad when we did.”


However, despite some angry callers, the message seemed to get out very well.


“Our residents’ response was great,” says Christy. “Our demand dropped so much when the restrictions went into effect. People really paid attention.”


“We wanted to emphasize that everyone was in this together and we all need to do our part,” says Jessica. “We wanted to make people aware that their efforts were important.”


“This is the first time we’ve had an emergency like this,” says Michael Thane, Director of Utilities and Environmental Services. “Our administrative staff across the board responded beautifully. They really helped the community understand the situation and in turn our residents responded well and reduced their water use. Our staff played a huge part in delivering the message we needed to get out.”


Moving forward
The emergency prompted an update to the City’s drought plan and the creation of new Stage 2B water restrictions that allow for once a week watering.


“The way the plan was written, the difference between Stage 2 restrictions – which allowed twice a week watering – and Stage 3 restrictions – which allowed no outdoor watering – was too extreme. The new Stage 2B restrictions allow for an intermediate stage,” Jessica said.


Currently, water levels at Lake Georgetown are increasing slightly but we are still facing a severe drought and we still need to conserve water.


“This situation has created a lot of awareness about our water situation and how severe this drought is. Hopefully, we can keep our consumption low this winter and help raise the levels at Lake Georgetown before summer begins,” says Christy.