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Water treatment audit leads to community college

In the past five years, the city’s water treatment authority has advised residents of Austin, TX at least three times to boil their tap water. The most recent incident occurred in February 2022 and lasted for three days. Residents and businesses alike had to use bottled water during the advisory. The city council ordered an audit of Austin Water, and one of the auditor’s recommendations included training provided by the local community college.

In Austin, the auditors found that there was no one single cause of Austin Water’s problems. In the February 2022 incident, an overnight operator at the Ullrich Water Treatment Plant made an error, which resulted in a substantial increase in the turbidity of the water. That, in turn, required Austin Water to advise residents to boil any water from their taps and to switch to bottled water for cooking, consumption, and handwashing.

That error, however, was one of more than 50 process problems at the Ullrich Water Treatment Plant. Austin Water’s chronic inability to recruit, hire, and retain qualified water treatment workers meant that on the night of the accident, only two operators were at the plant – well below the required staffing levels for safe operation. The staffing shortage, combined with a lack of supervision, contributed to the error that shut down the city’s water supply.

Water treatment personnel are badly needed

Austin Water accepted the auditor’s recommendation that the staff needed better and more frequent training to deal with unplanned situations that may arise at the city’s three treatment plants. According to the auditor’s report, Austin Water’s treatment plants were “severely understaffed.” Not only did the plants lack the right number of operators, they also suffered from a lack of experienced operators that would be more prepared to deal with unexpected circumstances.

One of the auditor’s recommendations was to develop a pipeline of workers to ensure that the city’s water plants remained adequately staffed. To that end, Austin Water is already working with a local community college to develop a water treatment program.

Municipal water supplies aren’t the only demand source for water treatment professionals. Manufacturing facilities regularly need trained water management professionals to ensure that wastewater from manufacturing processes is treated adequately before being discharged to municipal sewer systems or to open waterways.

Community colleges are in the ideal position to develop programs to fill the approximately 10,000 job openings in the field each year. The median pay for water treatment work exceeds $50,000 per year.

This is another example of the kind of occupational programs that community colleges should be adding to their course offerings.

Photo Credit: World Bank Photo Collection , via Flickr