Lessons learned, steps forward: Sherman talks winter storm 2021 aftermath

Michael Hutchins
Herald Democrat
Sherman city leaders are looking back at what led the city to experience wide-scale power and water outages during last month's winter storms.

Sherman is looking back at the lessons learned from a series of winter storms last month that left many residents without water, power or both while enduring near-zero temperatures for multiple days.

During this week's meeting, City Council members received an update on last month's unprecedented winter storms, what led to the utility outages and how the city can prevent this event from happening again.

The storms that struck most of Texas in mid-to-late February were unlike any the region has seen up to this point. Temperatures dropped as low as -4 degrees with wind chills near -20 degrees.

On one of the days, temperatures only rose to a high of 11 degrees. 

"We've had hundreds and hundreds of calls for service at the water meter, at a water main that may be busted and things like that," City Manager Robby Hefton said.

Sherman weather woes began on Feb. 15 as the state power grid began to experience difficulties keeping up with record power demand. During this peak period, power generators across the state began to drop offline due to the weather and demand. This only exacerbated the situation with the state's limited power resources.

In an effort to shed some of this demand, ERCOT requested that providers begin a series of rolling blackouts. However, these power outages lasted for days for customers, rather than the expected hour.

Sherman was one of the cities that was hit by the blackouts. While most utilities and key infrastructure were supposed to be immune to the blackouts, Sherman's surface water plant had its power cut.

"We had power by Monday afternoon, but things had already begin to spiral by that point," Hefton said.

Hefton said he later learned that the plant was supposed to be exempt from the outages, and the loss of power was due to an error.

The power outage at the plant led equipment to freeze over, effectively shutting down production for the majority of the winter event. This led to many pipes and storage tanks draining on the portion of the city that is serviced by surface water, including north and west Sherman.

The outage and pressure changes led the city to put a boil order in place, which was only lifted after a week.

This outage led city officials to attempt to support the entire city with the groundwater production system. In previous years, the city has fully relied on the groundwater production to meet it's needs at various times. However, this was not enough this time, Hefton said.

While the groundwater side has been able to meet Sherman's need at its peak production, several wells were down due to repairs or other maintenance. Other wells went down as a result of the storm.

Hefton also noted that the groundwater system was able to meet the city's needs at a time when the water lines and tanks were already full. Instead, the system was trying to meet the city's need while pressurizing and filling empty tanks.

"Not only were we not producing enough water for what we were using at the time, but there was no way we were going to be able to fill the bowl from when surface water treatment plant went down," Hefton said.

Looking forward, Hefton said the city is already looking for solutions to the problems that plagued the city during the storms. The first set of solutions came during the same meeting as the council approved a series of well repairs that were already set to come before city leaders.

Hefton said is also looking at options for back up generators within the city's water system that would prevent it from going down again. This would include generators not only at the treatment plant, but also the Lake Texoma pumping station and wastewater plant.

"If we had backup power that aspect of this would have been taken care of, but if the pump station goes out... it doesn't matter that we have power at the water treatment plant," he said.  

The cost for installing generators at the treatment plant and pump station combined is expected to come it at about $1.8 million. Cost for the wastewater plant generator remain undetermined, Hefton said.

While city staff are looking at ways to prevent the event from happening again, some members of the city council are asking if there are ways the city can be made whole from its expenses during the storm. Council member Pam Howeth asked if there were any legal ramifications or possibility to pursue Oncor Energy or ERCOT for the outages.

"Since we should not have been shut down by Oncor, are there any legal ramifications to that," she said. "It looks to me like they cost us a lot of expense and time and energy. I don't know if you can sue Oncor."

That question has been a recurring one in recent days. However, ERCOT may be immune to such lawsuits. ERCOT has previously argued that it shares the sovereign immunity that the state of Texas has. These arguments were made during a lawsuit between ERCOT and Panda Power related to incorrect information that was provided to the power company.

A file photo from 2017 shows the Panda Power plant in Sherman. Officials with ERCOT said high demand and unexpected plant outages across the state have led widespread blackouts.