As North Texas sweats through an extended stretch of 100-degree days this month, public transportation and other city services in Fort Worth are taking a hit from the heat wave.
City officials say departments are adapting their work schedules, advising staff on how to protect themselves from heat illness and warning residents about increased water main breaks.
The Fort Worth Water Department also reached a new record for water use on July 20, with 381.3 million gallons used citywide. It tops a previous record set during the 2021 winter storm.
“Water main breaks have our crews very busy,” water department spokeswoman Mary Gugliuzza said. “It’s going to take a while to get caught up because the numbers are still climbing.”
The frequency of extreme heat is increasing faster than cities can respond to the impact, said Mikhail Chester, the director of the Metis Center for Infrastructure and Sustainable Engineering at Arizona State University in Phoenix. Cities with aging water or electric systems are especially vulnerable, Chester said.
Civil engineers and government officials have traditionally focused on “hardening” infrastructure by improving energy efficiency in buildings or adding new sources of energy, he added.
“We are probably going to experience a lot more negative consequences before we catch up to the problem,” Chester said. “The good news is there’s remarkably talented engineers, infrastructure managers and so many people who recognize where we are and are starting to come together to think of novel ways of dealing with the challenge at hand when it comes to infrastructure.”
More water main break repairs, road construction continues
Water main breaks have increased precipitously with the onset of extreme heat; out of 483 water main breaks, 39% have occurred in the past 30 days, according to the Fort Worth Water Department.
“That’s directly attributable to the heat and dry conditions that we’re seeing,” Gugliuzza said.
Shifting dirt and increased demand for water coalesce to create more holes and breaks. Older cast iron pipes are primarily responsible. There are about 800 miles of cast iron pipes across the city, Gugliuzza said.
“It will be decades before we can get rid of all that pipe,” Gugliuzza said. “It could be upwards of $1.5 billion to replace all the cast iron.”
Without the financial resources to replace every city pipe with materials built to withstand hotter temperatures, water departments across the country must focus on maintaining “critical infrastructure,” Chester said.
“You can go and rip out all the water pipes and put new ones in, but that’s not going to happen” due to budget constraints and limited manpower, Chester said. “You can more strategically say: ‘OK, which are my critical pipes – the ones that are trunk lines, the ones that provide service to critical people in critical facilities like hospitals?’” Chester said. “Those are the ones with the limited resources that I’m going to have to prioritize.”
When asked about the city’s response to worsening heat waves, Gugliuzza explains that when experiencing extreme drought, the city implements a drought plan. The plan, which has been in place for about 25 years, allows the city to curtail outdoor watering.
“In the 26 years I’ve been here, redundancy and resiliency have always been major focuses for the water utility,” Gugliuzza said.
As water department crews scramble to fix breaks, road construction has not been halted despite the scorching heat, according to the city of Fort Worth’s transportation and public works department. The city uses a Heat Illness Prevention Plan that provides training for workers and their supervisors on how to protect themselves from extreme heat.
The department said inspectors and supervisors are monitoring crews working outside for most of the day and have taken a series of steps to follow the Heat Illness Prevention Plan. This includes cooling stations with canopy and misting fans, a 45-minute work cycle followed by 15 minutes of rest every hour.
While construction and water crews respond to infrastructure challenges, emergency response departments across the city are contending with an increase in fire and medical calls in response to extreme heat.
“People are being exposed to the elements,” said Craig Trojacek, spokesman for the Fort Worth Fire Department. “Basically, you’re got overheating, dehydration, just general illness.”
Rail services prepared for potential delays
On July 18, Trinity Metro issued the first of two heat restriction warnings to riders, notifying them of potential delays because of the high temperatures between 2-7 p.m.
However, Jon-Erik Arjanen, chief operating officer and vice-president of rail at Trinity Metro, said TEXRail did not experience any delay in schedule despite the lowered speed of the trains. TRE had only four trains out of 68 that ran late on July 18, and three were late by five to 10 minutes, he said.
Reduced speeds during the summer months are normal, he said.
“Our greatest charge at TEXRail during these times is to really ensure we are consistently on time to ensure our customers are not stuck at the station sitting in that sweltering heat,” Arjanen said. “We do have processes in place once rail temperatures hit certain levels, certain temperatures. We have two different levels that require us to reduce speed.”
On July 18 and 19, Trinity Metro imposed a 60 mph speed limit on TEXRail – a level 1 restriction, Arjanen said. Level 2, which drops the speed to 40 miles per hour, is not anticipated.
Level 1 restrictions are triggered once temperatures reach between 105 and 108 degrees. Level 2 is triggered around 110 degrees.
The slowing of the train speed is mostly a safety precaution in case of thermal misalignment. The heat can cause the steel of the rails to expand to the point where the anchors holding them down could snap due to the pressure.
“Even if the tracks aren’t buckled, just the threat that it will happen or has happened before means that you have to run trains slower because the operators are told to look out for buckling,” Chester, the Arizona State University professor, said. “There’s an operational service impact that simply happens at high temperatures, and this is playing out in the U.K. right now.”
Arjanen said no other impacts on services can be expected.
“We do not anticipate it, considering how impactful these extreme temperatures can be on equipment,” he said. “It’s really a testament to the entire Trinity Metro team, whether it’s the rail or the bus, that we’ve been able to maintain operations without impacting our customers, and ensuring the most important thing we do is really ensuring that we’re safe. So no one wants to see delays. But safety will always come first.”
Sandra Sadek is a Report for America corps member, covering growth for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.
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