After Winter Storm Uri, Fort Worth’s water system buckles down for future blackouts
During the freeze, Leon Reed crunched through the ice and snow, checking on senior citizens in the neighborhood of Como.
As he walked around, he noticed something strange. It was well below freezing outside, but water was bubbling up from cracks in the pavement and running in little rivers down the street.
He knew what that meant: A water main break.
"In addition to having rolling power outages, now folks ain't got no water,” he said in a video he posted on Facebook. “2021 Texas, y'all."
Fort Worth saw more than 700 water main breaks during the 2021 winter storm — more than in all of 2020.
The problem in Fort Worth, like everywhere else in Texas, went back to a lack of power. The blackout that left close to 4.5 million homes and businesses without electricity at the storm’s peak also hit Fort Worth’s water plants.
Three out of the four water plants in operation lost power, leading to a chain reaction of disasters. A slew of water mains burst and more than 300,000 people were told to boil their water, despite the fact that many had no power to turn on the stove.
Those power outages happened without any warning, according to Chris Harder, the head of Fort Worth’s water department.
“That was the most challenging event that most of us have had in our careers,” he said.
The water department has dealt with outages before, but never on such a scale, Harder said.
Officials wondered after the storm why water plants lost power; shouldn’t they be considered critical infrastructure, like hospitals?
As it turns out, they were.
During the freeze, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT — the organization that manages the Texas electric grid — ordered blackouts as demand for electricity spiked and supply dwindled.
That left electricity distribution companies, like Oncor in North Texas, in charge of picking where to “shed load” — which is energy industry jargon for kicking people off the grid to balance supply and demand.
The emergency was so dire that even places on Oncor’s critical list, like water plants, got chopped, said Oncor spokesperson Kerri Dunn.
“Unfortunately, with the February power emergency, we saw the amount of load shed was five times more than we'd ever had to shed before,” she said.
Oncor has worked to improve communication with local water departments, Dunn said, and the company has updated its list of critical infrastructure. But that list has limits.
“The critical designation is not a guarantee of uninterrupted power,” Dunn said.
New planning requirements, and their limitations
Water problems were far more widespread than just the Fort Worth area. About half of all Texans lost access to running water during the week of the winter storm, according to a University of Houston survey, and many of those with access to running water could not drink it.
After the storm, the state legislature put in place new requirements for water departments to prepare for future outages. On March 1, water departments have to submit an emergency preparedness plan that explains how they’ll maintain water pressure when the power goes out for more than 24 hours. Keeping water pressure up is important, because low water pressure can allow contaminated water to enter pipes.
Jason Knobloch with the Texas Rural Water Association went around the state doing trainings about the new requirements.
Planning is good, he said, but a devastating storm can upend the best laid plans.
“Even with the idea of having a backup generator, if you have a hurricane come through, and a tree takes out your generator, your plan doesn't really play out like it used to,” he said.
That happened in Fort Worth during last year’s storm. The water department tested the generators it already had in advance, but a technical problem prevented one of them from activating when needed, Harder told the City Council in April.
The Fort Worth Water Department has now made plans and taken steps to keep things up and running during a future storm.
The water department bought heaters to keep pump stations running in the cold. Other preparations, like enclosing pump stations and putting in backup generators, require construction or custom manufacturing and won't be done by the end of this winter. The city estimates all the improvements will take two to three years, with potential delays due to supply chain issues.
Fort Worth has also accelerated the replacement of the city’s 800 miles of old, brittle cast iron pipes, which should help prevent water main breaks in the future.
Neighborhoods take their own steps
Back in Como, where Leon Reed saw all those water main breaks, the neighborhood is making its own preparations for another storm.
Ella Burton, the president of the Como’s Neighborhood Advisory Council, said that the storm was unlike any she’d experienced in her lifetime.
"I'm old, so I can tell you when there were dirt roads,” she laughed.
“We've had a few devastations, but nothing like that storm of February of 2021."
The neighborhood’s monthly mobile food pantry scheduled an extra date for February, just in case there’s another huge storm, Burton said. She’s also thinking about stockpiling water at her church, to distribute if needed. And she owns a generator now.
“Of course, we weren't prepared for it,” she said of last year’s storm. “That will not happen again.”
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