Authorities Baffled as Austin Tallies 70th Drinking Water Death of 2015

At current rate, city is on pace to double last year’s total of 54.

by Marshall Escamilla

When Susan Alvarez, 23, died on Saturday from injuries sustained while using her tap, she became the 70th person to die as a result of Austin’s drinking water since January 1st of this year. Alvarez was going to boil some pasta last Wednesday evening, when she turned on the tap–only to have it explode in her face due to her failure to turn the knob to the left first.

Alvarez’ death is the 70th drinking-water related fatality that Austin has suffered this year. The city has been on a record-breaking pace since New Year’s day, when three people were hospitalized when a water main exploded in an apartment complex in Southeast Austin. Authorities are baffled as to what could be causing the spike this year.

“There’s just no pattern to it, and I’m not sure what we can do to stop it,” says Water Chief Art Acevedo, who’s been running Austin Water since 2004. “We’ve always known that drinking water is dangerous and people need to take reasonable precautions to protect themselves, but this is easily the worst I’ve seen. I quite frankly don’t know what to do about it.”

Acevedo says that a lot of the water-related fatalities are the result of residents making poor choices with their taps. “We all know that tap water is dangerous; people need to look themselves in the mirror and ask if they’re willing to play Russian Roulette with their tap today.”

For example, one of the recent fatalities involved a student who hurriedly turned his hot water on without looking. When the tap exploded backwards out his kitchen wall, the high-pressure spray of scalding water instantly killed three children who were playing in their front yard. A fourth suffered third degree burns and is still in intensive care.

“That’s one example of a person who should have been much more careful,” Acevedo says.

Nic Moe, with Water Zero ATX, a grass-roots group that advocates for policies to prevent drinking water-related deaths, has other ideas.

“The fact is that the way we’ve designed our water system really is dangerous,” he says. “More than anything else, the pressure in the system is just way too high–there’s no need for the tap to explode 1 out of every 25 times you turn it on. The city needs to adopt programs that right size our water mains right away. That’s already being tried in some parts of the city, and there’s been no detriment to water service and we can already see that the safety numbers in those areas are dramatically improved.”

Right sizing is a program in which the water pressure and size of water mains serving residential and commercial areas are scaled down in order to ensure slower water tap speeds. Moe points out that slowing the water coming out of the tap has a dramatic impact on safety, sometimes reducing water-tap fatalities by as much as 75%. “In fact,” he says, “in some areas where right-sizing has been tried, the fatality rate is down to zero.”

As promising as these experimental policies may be, not everyone is excited about them. Some residents are concerned that right-sizing would make it harder for them to get the water pressure they need to go about their daily lives. For instance, at the last Water Safety Commission meeting, one concerned resident mentioned that right-sizing in his neighborhood made it impossible for him to pressure-wash his front porch with his kitchen faucet.

“These are the kinds of things that really harm our quality of life here in Austin,” he said. “People just need to be more careful when they’re using their tap, and get off their damn cell phones!”

While right-sizing is being hotly debated in the Water Safety Commission and at City Council, it’s important that Austin residents do all they can to prevent fatalities when they’re using their water.

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