‘They were troopers’: How the City of Round Rock kept water flowing during the winter storms

Williamson County

ROUND ROCK, Texas (KXAN) — When deadly winter storms blew through Texas, a lot went wrong with essential resources and services. Major counties and cities lost power, water and were under boil water notices, but the City of Round Rock managed to keep the water flowing.

Round Rock is attributing its ability to continue delivering water to the city’s preparedness that goes back years, but also its “can-do” attitude.

Planning that dates back 10 years

“It goes back 10 years when we started planning for making sure our infrastructure was in place, making sure we have backup generators, cross training our personnel,” said Round Rock Utilities Director Michael Thane. “Our team never once said, ‘we can’t get through this.’ They were troopers, and worked basically around the clock for the six-day period.”

In 2008, the City of Round Rock bought a backup generator for its water pumping site on Lake Georgetown for $800,000.

It came in handy.

The City of Round Rock said when power went out at the city’s pumps at Lake Georgetown, the backup generator kicked online, and the emergency plan was activated.

The problem is the emergency plan only accounts for the generator running for less than four hours. According to Round Rock, for a typical outage that’s enough time for the Pedernales Electric Cooperative to restore service.  

When it was clear last week’s outage was going to last much longer than that, the Round Rock utility team jumped to their feet.

Keeping up with generator demand

To keep up with the generator demand, the utility crew had to first locate a 1,000-gallon fuel tank and guide it through treacherous icy roads back to the treatment plant.

Thane, the utility director, contacted General Services Director Chad McDowell, who’s responsible for facilities and vehicles. McDowell’s team found a 1,000-gallon tank at the Brush Recycle Center, which is operated by the Parks and Recreation Department.

The Fire Department also helped with providing a truck with the right hitch and towing capacity, and the Transportation Department was tasked with laying down sand along the drive.

Journey across the Hill Country

“I knew the topography of the trip, and I was super nervous. It is Hill Country…. It’s all Hill Country,” said McDowell. “I called Michael… and I said, ‘I’m super nervous about the roads. I’m super nervous about going down the roads.’ He said, ‘we have to have it there by noon. If we don’t try, then we are going to lose it.'”

In less than two hours, the utilities department, the fire truck, the transportation department and the 1,000-gallon fuel tank made it out of Round Rock, down the interstate to Georgetown and then around Lake Georgetown.

Street Superintendent Matt Fitzgerald, who was the last vehicle in line watched the whole thing unfold.

“My heart was in my throat watching it. There’s a couple hills going up to the pump where the truck started hopping. I was thinking, ‘please don’t start sliding backwards,'” said Fitzgerald. “There was a truck there that had already jackknifed. We passed that sliding sideways in the ice and called the guy sanding and said start sanding. He literally was sanding a path for the truck with the fuel.”

The trucks arrived back at the treatment plant shortly after noon. Within two minutes of getting there, the backup generator ran out of fuel. The generator was primed and refueled, but then another problem arose.

Getting a third pump online

Lake Georgetown has nine pumps, but seven were frozen over, leaving only two available. As the week went on, the demand for water increased, and the city needed to get a third pump online. The backup generator only has the capabilities of powering two pumps, so Pedernales Electric agreed to flow electricity to the third pump.

“While we were running on the generator, we were able to unthaw a third pump,” said Thane. “We had a torch and propane. We were keeping that third pump unfrozen for several days leading up to Wednesday.”

Through all of this, the utilities team faced several other challenges. Many of them were sleeping on cots at the treatment plan and working 16+ hour days to keep the water moving through the pipes.

‘You could see the defeat in their eyes’

“You could see the defeat in their eyes — they were tired. They had the same worries everybody else in the city did,” said Fitzgerald. “I said, ‘guys this is going to be dangerous, I’m not going to make you do this.’ I asked who wants to run a sander, and everybody raised their hands.”

If those two pumps at Lake Georgetown had been out of service for too long or a third pump wasn’t brought online, then the water system would have lost pressure. Losing pressure would have triggered a boil water notice.

“It’s when it’s all over — it just hits you,” said Thane.

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