Tucked away into a northwest corner of the city, Lake Worth has cycled between slow deterioration and sudden investment since its creation in 1914. Now, residents are hoping the latest round of investment will improve safety and access on the lake.
“People understand the importance of what we do out here, and how much we add as far as safety goes,” Philip Swift, who leads the Fort Worth City Marshals, said. “(City) leadership … understands how it makes Fort Worth a better place to live, to have an area like this to come out, enjoy the recreation and be safe.”
On a hot July weekday morning, the lake is quiet except for the occasional ‘whoosh’ of jet planes from the nearby Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base. The five-square-mile lake used to house water sports competitions. Now, most of its users operate fishing or pontoon boats.
While only a few boats cruise around on a Thursday afternoon, the lake is filled with activity on peak holiday weekends. A small office on the northeast side of the lake houses the only law enforcement agency with direct access to the water at all times — the Fort Worth Marshal’s Lake Patrol Unit.
After decades of neglect, the city invested millions into dredging Lake Worth in 2007, using revenue from natural gas drilling operations under the lake. Now, city leadership is once again ramping up improvements to the shallow lake.
Fort Worth is considering pouring about $800,000 into the City Marshal Division’s Lake Patrol Unit amid challenges with aging infrastructure and increased public use. The unit’s deputies operate year-round. They’re responsible for everything on the water and the water’s edge.
The biggest area for improvement is the marshal’s boat house. The structure, which deputies said hasn’t likely been improved at all since the 1990s, is no longer safe to use, according to an architect who was hired to evaluate the boathouse.
An increase in boat inspections indicate use of Lake Worth has steadily climbed since 2017. That year; the lake patrol conducted 1,320 water safety checks of boats on the water. Halfway through 2022, the deputies are already approaching 1,200 checks.
The surrounding parks, which the deputies also patrol, have similarly experienced more use. Public use of the Fort Worth Nature Center, which is adjacent to the lake, has increased 46% between 2007 and 2021, according to the data from the Parks and Recreation Department.
The lake patrol, which falls under the authority of the municipal courts, took over enforcement on the lake from Fort Worth’s parks department decades ago. Years later, the city is making improvements to infrastructure inherited from the parks department.
Even if the boat house was fit to use, since it is fixed into the ground when water is low, deputies are required to lift injured boaters or victims of drowning three feet into the air, using a ladder to climb out themselves.
Now that the boathouse has been condemned, deputies go through a time-consuming process of driving to a boat ramp and lowering the vessel into the lake; one experienced deputy can complete the process in about 15 minutes. The process makes it harder for deputies to respond quickly to water safety concerns like drownings and crashes, Swift said.
“It doesn’t take much for (drownings) to turn bad out here. You can literally drown in a tablespoon of water,” Swift said. “So anytime we have somebody in the water, the faster we can get there, the better off we’re going to be.”
The role of the lake patrol
When the deputies took over lake enforcement from Fort Worth’s parks department, they became one of the only lake enforcement entities in the region housed under the city marshal division.
The city used to own all the land surrounding Lake Worth, leasing out the property to residents. The income from the leases went into the Lake Worth trust fund. When the city began selling properties to inhabitants in 2017, the North Lake Worth Neighborhood Association formed a committee in response and asked the city to ensure they find funding in their budget for the lake patrol.
“We need these people on the lake,” Lesley Pinckard, board member and former president of the North Lake Worth Neighborhood Association, said. “The water is hugely important and they need to have the vehicles and the equipment to properly patrol and assist.”
The waning leases will increase tax income to the city’s general fund in the long term, according to the city’s fiscal year 2022 budget.
“We had this model that was funded by these leases, that’s going away,” William Rumuly, court director with the Fort Worth Municipal Court, said. “What do we do moving forward, and, … do we continue to leave it up to the marshal’s responsibility, or do we move it somewhere else?”
The unit inherited equipment, including boats, garages, trucks and an office from the city parks department. For many years, the city continued to consider whether the city marshal division should be responsible for enforcement on the lake, or whether to bring in the Fort Worth Police Department for the job.
Rumuly and Swift were brought on to oversee the city marshal division after the question of funding for the lake patrol was resolved. The city decided that funding for the lake patrol would be built into the municipal court’s budget. From there, the city turned its attention toward lake patrol through an assessment of needs.
“(City leadership) were supportive of, let’s not just do a bandaid or something, let’s do something that’s going to last and make sense,” Rumuly said. “So I would say those things kind of all came together.”
With increased use comes increased demand
Surrounding neighborhood associations see boundless potential in the infrastructure already available around Lake Worth. The Parks and Recreation Department is building a trail looping around Lake Worth, Phase 1 of the project is expected to be completed in 2023, costing the city about $7 million.
The new trails will likely require lake patrol to respond to more incidents on and around the lake.
“I think we’re definitely going to see an increase in the amount of folks we get out here,” Swift said. “More foot traffic, more bicycle traffic, more people hiking and using those areas, which we do have a lot of problems with.”
Equipment and staffing have to keep pace with use of the lake, Swift said. The city marshal division has made an effort to increase the number of deputies on shift and the overall number of deputies during peak use — like holidays and long weekends.
“We’re really trying to be here when the lake is being used the most,” Swift said.
Recruitment is a challenge across every type of law enforcement, Rumuly said. Traditionally, retirees would join lake patrol after leaving from other types of law enforcement. Now, the department has a mix of senior and mid-career officers.
“Could we always use more staffing? Of course,” Swift said. ”But I think we’ve done a good job keeping up with demands, in meeting those needs and being here during the highest usage time.”
The municipal courts now assign six deputies and one sergeant to lake enforcement. The department hopes to expand the deputies’ roles to include water safety education at surrounding community meetings and schools.
Kenneth Chrzanawski and his family have been out to Lake Worth six times this year to enjoy swimming on the shores of the lake. The busiest he’s ever seen it was during the Fourth of July weekend, Chrzanawski said.
“Law enforcement was out walking through making sure everything was all good,” Chrzanawski said. His family doesn’t have any concerns about safety on the shores of the lake, but keep a close eye on their kids in the water, Chrzanawski said.
Lake patrol deputies responded to the fatal drowning of a 16-year-old boy in June along with game wardens and the Fort Worth Fire Department, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported. It’s important to remain prepared for drownings and all kinds of emergencies, including stranded hikers and boat collisions, Swift said.
“Literally, we are ‘Johnny on the Spot,’ as they say, right? So we’re the only ones coming in an emergency right away, everyone else has to come from a distance,” Swift said.
Along with the municipal court’s lake patrol division, other city departments work together to serve Lake Worth’s many needs. The parks and recreation department operates the wildlife refuge and surrounding parks, property management has a hand in building and maintaining equipment and code enforcement works with the deputies to prevent illegal dumping. The deputies also receive support from the Fort Worth police and fire departments.
The agency inherited a field office, storage facility and single-bay boathouse from the parks department. Last year, the city marshal division conducted a survey of facilities and funded a renovation of the field office.
A converted picnic area, the office is adjacent to the boathouse and a short drive away from the boat launch where deputies form a team of two to get the patrol boat in the water.
The deputies have three boats and a fleet of trucks to enforce Water Safety Code and periodically patrol the parks.
“As we started to look at making sure that we can protect our equipment from the weather or otherwise, that we have proper facilities for staff to utilize and that can be maintained and will last for the next 40 years,” Rumuly said.
Those equipment upgrades potentially include a new boathouse, a storage facility and truck — all to be approved within the next year. The Fort Worth City Council already approved a new jet boat for the deputies, to be delivered by the end of the summer.
The deputies requested a new jet boat in 2017, but the pandemic created challenges securing a contract with a builder who could meet the specific needs of the lake patrol. The new boat will be manufactured to meet the needs of the lake deputies, who need to wade into extremely shallow water.
The storage facility will house boats and trucks when they’re not in use. The project has an estimated cost of $250,000.
The city marshal division will ask to move funds from its general fund over to a capital project fund to build the new storage facilities at the City Council’s upcoming meeting Aug 9. The deputies plan to make improvements to the storage facility first, and then move on to the boat house.
“It makes sense first to do it on land and then do it on water,” Rumuly said.
What is a capital improvement fund?
Capital projects are larger projects that receive their own pot of funding, pulled from the department’s general fund or another source.
The boathouse project has many potential sources of funding. The most likely will be funding the improvements through a capital improvement project using property management funds. The department could also submit the cost of the boathouse as part of the city’s 2023 budget.
“It’s really what they need and not beyond that to protect the resources and give the staff what they need,” Rumely said. “So from a funding standpoint, we feel confident that it’s going to be funded.”
The municipal courts department requested $376,000 of American Rescue Act Plan funds to complete the project, which wasn’t initially chosen but final decisions haven’t been made. Lake patrol also routinely applies for anti-terrorism grants because of its promimity to the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth.
“The city invested a lot of time and money in the lake patrol as a whole and ensuring that we have the proper equipment to go out and do the work we do,” Swift said.
Along with infrastructure improvements, the city marshal division hopes to expand the duties of the deputies to include educating residents about water safety.
“I think safety and security related to education is a real opportunity,” Rumuly said. “Whether it’s summer programs or whatever is going on out there, that’s an area I see us growing in as well.”
Future plans for Lake Worth should include improvements to Casino Beach Park, Pinckard said. The city has considered making improvements to the park before, Rumuly said, but no action has been taken.
“If they develop that as a park, that could be just amazing,” Pinckard said. “Preserving a lot of the natural attributes of the park, making it a great place to hike and enjoy the water. It could just be a huge draw just for the outdoor aspect.”
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.