For days, 312,000 in Fort Worth had to boil water. Could crisis have been prevented?

Luke Ranker
·10 min read

When Ron Shearer wanted a drink of water on a recent afternoon, it took about three minutes to fill his glass in his Diamond Hill home.

Shearer, president of the neighborhood north of downtown Fort Worth, said his water pressure had been “very low” since Feb. 19, and before that he was one of the more than 210,000 water customers in the city’s northern third who needed to boil water before drinking it. More than 310,000 customers citywide had to boil water at some point during the winter emergency. An untold number were without entirely.

“The pressure is so low, you might as well not have water,” Shearer said.

Still, Shearer said he’s lucky. He’s heard from dozens of Diamond Hill-Jarvis residents without water because of the large number of water main breaks in the neighborhood. As of late Thursday afternoon, nearly 40 water main breaks had been reported in the area, including four around an intersection near Shearer’s home on North Elm Street, according to a city map.

Those are just a few of the more than 660 water main breaks Fort Worth Water has been dealing with across the city since Valentine’s Day, when an epic cold snap moved into Texas and plunged the state into a winter emergency.

Busted and leaking pipes are a part of doing business for any water utility, and Fort Worth Water thought it was prepared for the likelihood that water main breaks would accompany the cold weather, director Chris Harder said.

But the utility was not prepared for widespread power outages that Harder said “definitely” led to the record high number of water main breaks. The total cost has not been estimated but it is likely to be millions of dollars.

Around midnight on Feb. 15, power began to go out at multiple water facilities, including three of the city’s four treatment centers and several pump stations. The outages, part of the statewide rolling blackouts, were unannounced and unavoidable, Harder said, though he questioned whether drinking water facilities should be caught up in planned blackouts.

Oncor said some critical customers lost power because of the load shed that was required to protect the grid from catastrophic failure. About two-thirds of Oncor’s transmission lines have at least one critical customer on them, and hospitals are the No. 1 priority to keep in operation, spokesperson Kerri Dunn wrote in an email.

When concerns about water facilities were escalated, Oncor responded as quickly as possible while also continuing to follow the load shed requirements set by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, she wrote.

“We are committed to working with local leaders to get a better understanding of their needs during extreme weather events,” she wrote. “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.”

The Eagle Mountain water treatment plant, where power was out the longest, went dark first, just after midnight Feb. 15. Though it came back on briefly in the morning, it was not fully restored until around 9:30 p.m. The plant was not able to treat water until 3:30 p.m. Feb. 16 because much of the facility was frozen. A loss of water pressure from the Eagle Mountain station drove the north third of Fort Worth into a boil water advisory from Feb. 15 through about noon on Feb. 19, affecting more than 210,000 customers.

From about 1:45 a.m. to 5:20 a.m. the Holly treatment plant near downtown had no power. Water service was restored to the plant by 3:50 p.m., the shortest outage at any plant. Power was out three times from 2:10 a.m. on Feb. 15 to 7 a.m. on Feb. 16 at the west Fort Worth plant. Water service there was fully restored around 9:30 a.m. that morning.

The outages threw a large, system-wide wrench in Fort Worth Water’s plan to prevent water main breaks, Harder said.

To prevent cast iron water pipes from rupturing, the department had planned to divert colder water, which mostly comes from the downtown treatment plant along the Trinity River, away from older parts of town, Harder said. Cold water makes cast iron more brittle and more likely to crack.

The power outages created another problem: constantly changing pressure and temperatures inside the cast iron pipes. The changes made some pipes expand and contrast, also causing cracks, he said.

Hundreds of breaks between Montgomery Street and Las Vegas Trail dropped the water pressure in west Fort Worth to a level where a boil water advisory was also needed for more than 100,000 customers from Feb. 18 through Feb. 21. The city pumped 40 million gallons a day into that portion of the system, largely cold water from the downtown plant, to try to keep the pressure up, Harder said.

“It’s like a cascading issue. Not only are you introducing cold water into these cast iron pipes that did not like to see that cold water, on top of that you’re having to increase the amount of pumping so you’re adding additional stress to the pipelines,” he said. “You had a problem that just created another problem, and then just kind of snowballed”

As of Thursday morning, 669 water mains had ruptured in Fort Worth. Throughout all of 2020 the city fixed 651 water main breaks. The city said it is hard to estimate how many people were without water because of the breaks.

In 2011, the year Arlington hosted the Super Bowl amid a winter storm, only 173 water mains broke, Harder said.

Water Main Breaks

Map shows the water main breaks from Feb. 14th through to present. Red dots show work is not in progress, yellow shows work crews assigned, and green shows work is completed. The data is provided by the city of Fort Worth.

Open

It’s unclear how much the record water main breaks will cost Fort Worth.

Larger pipe is more expensive than a smaller pipe and placing a clamp on a crack is cheaper than replacing pipe when a joint fails, for instance. There’s also the additional cost of repaving a street once the pipe is fixed, Harder said.

He estimated the average water main break could cost $5,000, though some could be much higher. With nearly 670 breaks, that’s about $3.5 million.

The water and sewer department operates on a budget of about $479.5 million, funded almost entirely by user fees in the form of water and wastewater rates. Before the winter emergency, some Fort Worth customers had complained about increases in their water bills.

Harder said the city will look for state or federal disaster relief to help cover the cost of repairs, but ultimately it may be up to customers.

“If there’s no disaster funding to help pay for this then it definitely would get picked up by ratepayers,” he said.

Prevention and maintenance

Harder said he hopes to prevent a similar situation the next time Texas has rolling blackouts.

That will start with understanding where Fort Worth’s water facilities fall in the ranking of priority when Oncor shuts power off.

Since the initial power outage, Harder said he has not spoken with Oncor about making drinking water plants a priority. Those conversations are likely to happen in the coming weeks as the city assesses its own facilities, he said.

If Fort Worth Water had known power outages were coming, the utility would have powered some parts of the system off itself to prevent damage, Harder said. At one station, a control panel’s computer was damaged and had to be replaced when power went off and on, he said.

Typically treatment plants have multiple power feeds, but all were down during the blackout. The department has some generators, but Harder said the snow and ice made it difficult to transport them to the pump stations and plants quickly. In the future the city may position generators on site sooner.

Some water utilities have small natural gas power plants on site, but Fort Worth does not. Harder said the city could explore secondary power generation, but noted that the supply of natural gas was greatly diminished during the winter storm, so that option may not be reliable.

Replacing Fort Worth’s pipes

One of the best ways to prevent water main breaks is to replace old, corroded cast iron pipes.

More than 20% of the city’s nearly 3,700 miles of drinking water pipes are cast iron, according to a water department report. More than 350 of those miles are in critical condition. Some of the pipe may be more than a century old.

Much like Fort Worth’s aging stormwater system, upgrading the city’s drinking water pipes would cost about $1 billion, Harder said. The department has about $66 million to spend annually on improvement projects, split between drinking and wastewater. That’s up from less than $50 million in 2012, and Harder said he hoped the department could support more than $80 million in the coming years.

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A 2012 report from the American Water Works Association found that U.S. water utilities needed to invest nearly $2 trillion through 2050 to improve buried drinking water infrastructure. Water main breaks had increased 27% in six years, according to a 2018 study from Utah State that surveyed American and Canadian utilities.

Greg Kail, a spokesman for the American Water Works Association, said the 2012 analysis had not been updated, but it’s not uncommon for cities to see pipes burst during cold weather. One of the primary causes for broken mains in southern states like Texas is the depth at which they are buried.

“In a warmer weather climate, you might have things that are not as deep in the ground as they would be in a city that’s used to many, many days of freezing temperatures,” he said, adding later that he couldn’t think of a situation as severe as what happened in Texas.

Fort Worth Water annually plans improvement projects, usually tied to street work so the road does not have to be replaced twice, Harder said.

The city planned a $6 million to $7 million project for the Ridglea area, a neighborhood that had one of the highest concentrations of water main breaks during the freeze. There were roughly 50 breaks in the area of Ridglea Hills, according to the city’s map.

“I’ll tell you one thing, that’s been somewhat frustrating to see,” Harder said. “We have a lot of projects that are either in bidding or under construction where we’re doing main break repairs.”

For Shearer, the Diamond Hill-Jarvis resident with low pressure, the repairs can’t come soon enough. On Wednesday he said he saw multiple crews in his neighborhood.

“I know they’re working, but it is frustrating,” he said.

Water Main Breaks

Map shows the water main breaks from Feb. 14th through to present. Red dots show work is not in progress, yellow shows work crews assigned, and green shows work is completed. The data is provided by the city of Fort Worth.