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What Happened To Fort Worth's Water During The February Freeze

A man in army fatigues holds jugs of plastic water in front of a pickup truck filled with water jugs and next to a tanker truck, where several people are lined up to fill up jugs.
Christopher Connelly
/
KERA News
Volunteers, city workers and members of the Texas Army National Guard help distribute water to residents.

The head of Fort Worth's water utility says he got no warning that three out of four of the city's water plants would lose power during the storm in February.

During February's freezing cold weather, hundreds of thousands of Fort Worth residents could not rely on their tap water.

North and West Fort Worth, as well as surrounding communities that rely on water from Fort Worth, were under water boil notices for several days. This was while many people had no electricity, or no water to boil.

With bottled water sold out in many supermarkets, the city set up emergency water distribution sites for residents like Karina Davila.

“Stores, everything, everyone’s out of water, pretty much,” Davila said. “It’s really a struggle.”

The head of Fort Worth Water, Chris Harder, said the power outages that many Texans suffered are also to blame for the city's water problems.

So What Happened?

Harder said his department was prepared for the cold. It opened its call center 24/7 the Friday before the storm and staffed its water plants overnight.

What he didn’t expect were power outages at three out of four of the city's water plants.

“It really had a domino effect in terms of the misery on our population, where you go from having no power to having no power and no water,” he said.

During the freeze, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT — the nonprofit in charge of maintaining the balance of electricity supply and demand — ordered blackouts to prevent frying the entire grid, leaving millions of Texans stuck in the dark.

Fort Worth's water plants were not spared. When the city’s Eagle Mountain plant lost power, it triggered the North Fort Worth water boil notice.

A slide from a city presentation shows the electric and water outages that three of Fort Worth's water plants suffered during the snowstorm and freezing cold of February 2021.
City of Fort Worth
This slide from a city presentation shows the duration of the power and water outages at Fort Worth water plants during the February freeze. All but one of the city's plants lost power, and some plants saw multiple power outages.

That and the other plant outages put stress on the city's pipe system. More than 20 percent of Fort Worth's pipes are made of cast iron, and these pipes are responsible for most of the city’s water main breaks, even during mild weather.

The cast iron pipes can't handle really cold water, so the utility planned to go easy on them.

That plan got thrown out the window when the plants lost power. The utility needed water moving through the system, which is important, because losing pressure could lead to water contamination.

“The consequences of that became that we had more main breaks, and when we had more main breaks, it means that we had to add more pumping,” Harder said.

Fort Worth had 707 water main breaks due to the storm — more than in all of 2020.

It took a while to get plants moving again even after power was restored, and some plants lost power multiple times.

Just as people have to drip their faucets at home when it’s cold, Harder said, water plants have to keep their water moving.

“It’s not like a water plant starting and stopping is a simple little matter,” he said.

Why Did The Plants Lose Power In The First Place?

Harder said the water utility never got a warning that the plants would lose power.

The decision of who to cut from the grid fell to Oncor — the electric distribution company that serves North Texas.

In an email, Oncor spokesperson Kerri Dunn said some water plants were knocked offline due to historic demand for power, severe cold and orders from ERCOT.

“We were fighting to protect the Texas grid from catastrophic failure by shedding load, while keeping every critical infrastructure element we knew about in operation,” she said.

But that has left some city leaders wondering: Why aren't water plants prioritized during an emergency?

That's unclear to Fort Worth City Councilmember Carlos Flores, whose district was affected by the water boil notices. He wants a better understanding of which facilities are critical enough to keep the lights on, as well as better communication.

“At the city level, pun not intended, we were in the dark. We did not have any indication of how long a rotating outage was going to be. We did not have an indication where the next one was going to be,” he said.

Oncor wants to have that conversation with local leaders, Dunn said.

“We will work together to better identify these types of facilities and strive to keep any water-facility outage times at a manageable level, while also protecting other critical infrastructure and keeping general public outages as limited as possible,” she wrote.

Water plants should be protected from power outages just like hospitals, said John Tracy, director of the Texas Water Resources Institute at Texas A&M.

“Try to run a hospital without water supply,” he said. “If you’re saying a hospital is critical, OK. Either they have their own water treatment facility, which some hospitals do, or they’re relying on the local water utility provider.”

Tracy said no utility can run without problems during a disaster, but some warning could have helped the water department prepare for the outages.

How Can This Be Prevented From Happening Again?

Harder said the water utility is considering ways to keep the plants operating during power outages in the future. He told the City Council at a work session following the storm that the department may start keeping generators on hand, and move certain instruments indoors where they won’t freeze.

The only plant that never went offline, Rolling Hills, gets its power from high voltage lines, not the distribution lines the public relies on, Harder said. Moving the other plants off of those distribution lines may be a way to protect plants from outages in the future.

However, he said needs to know if water plants will get priority for power before he makes any plans.

As for those brittle cast iron pipes, the city is already replacing them. They've been working on it for years, and it's a long-term project with a massive price tag.

"I mean, when you talk about the replacement cost for the cast iron inventory that we have, it's over a billion dollars,” Harder said.

Harder told the City Council his department plans to ask for an extra $3 million per year to speed up the process.

Got a tip? Email Miranda Suarez at msuarez@kera.org. You can follow Miranda on Twitter @MirandaRSuarez.

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