Freese and Nichols is a Texas-headquartered consulting engineering firm with operations around the nation. It was founded in 1894 and has been working with some clients, including the City of Fort Worth, since that year. Its experience in the wastewater services market spans a century as well. In this interview, David Jackson, the treatment practice leader and group manager for Freese and Nichols’s North Texas water and wastewater treatment group, tells Municipal Water Leader about how that wastewater practice has developed in recent decades, highlights important recent projects, and explains the importance of Freese and Nichols’s ethic of client service.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
David Jackson: I graduated from Texas A&M University with a bachelor’s and a master’s in civil environmental engineering. Upon graduation, I had a few opportunities with consulting firms in the Dallas–Fort Worth area, which is where I grew up. I had fallen in love with the water and environmental business when I was in college, so I was looking at firms that focused on that field. I had an opportunity to interview with Bob Pence at Freese and Nichols, who later became the president and CEO of the company. I was fortunate enough to be hired in 1993 and to learn from Bob and many other mentors.
I moved through the ranks of the company, holding the positions of engineer, project manager, and then associate. I eventually began managing my own team of treatment engineers in our Dallas office. Currently, I am Freese and Nichols’s practice leader for water and wastewater treatment. The main part of the job is to help groups that do treatment work all across the country develop their business and their people, to help them coordinate their needs for projects, and to maintain quality across multiple regions within our discipline.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you introduce Freese and Nichols as a company?
David Jackson: Freese and Nichols was established in 1894 primarily as a water services consulting firm. Since the beginning, we’ve had a culture of client service. That is the foundation of our company’s hedgehog concept, which is to be the best in the world at client service. We focus on building long-term relationships with our clients.
Today, we have expanded and are now a water and civil infrastructure firm. The easiest way to describe our work today is to say that we help cities, municipal clients, and state and federal agencies build water infrastructure and municipal infrastructure to help cities grow and maintain their services to their citizens. With a little under 1,000 employees, we offer a wide variety of services in consulting with the exception of surveying.
We are headquartered in Fort Worth, and for many decades, the vast majority of our work was centered in Texas. Over the last two decades, we’ve really started to branch out, and today, in addition to our offices in Texas, we have offices in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Oklahoma.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about Freese and Nichols’s wastewater services.
David Jackson: Water and wastewater treatment were some of the very first services offered by the firm, and we have maintained that practice throughout our entire 126-year history. On the wastewater side in particular, we help our clients and communities create clean water from wastewater. We work primarily with municipal, rather than industrial, wastewater. We help communities design facilities that remove pollutants from wastewater and generate clean water that is then either reused or returned to the environment. On the water treatment side, we help cities provide safe drinking water by designing large-scale water purification factories.
Municipal Water Leader: What percentage of Freese and Nichols’s business is accounted for by wastewater?
David Jackson: So far, I’ve only really touched on the treatment side of wastewater, but there are a lot of additional disciplines within the company that deal with it. We have a master-planning team that helps our clients master their wastewater infrastructure. We have utilities teams that help our clients move wastewater to where it needs to be. You have to have pump stations and pipelines to be able to convey the sewage that a city creates to the locations where it can be processed, treated, and cleaned back up. There are a lot of other subdisciplines within our organization that support that. We have electrical, structural, and architectural groups that help us design and build these facilities. Water and wastewater in general are fairly evenly balanced in terms of how much of the company’s business they make up; together, they make up more than half the company’s business.
Municipal Water Leader: In addition to consulting, design work, and master planning, do you help to manage the construction itself?
David Jackson: Yes, we do. We’re not a construction firm, so we don’t lay concrete or install equipment, but we provide construction management and program management services to our clients. That typically involves serving as the owner’s representative by reviewing the work of a contractor, doing day-to-day inspections of what is being constructed in the field, reviewing contractor submissions, and making sure that the project is in conformity with the general requirements of our design. After construction is complete, we support our client with startup services and offer assistance they may need to bring these new systems online and incorporate them into their operations.
Municipal Water Leader: Are your clients for wastewater projects mostly municipal agencies?
David Jackson: Most of them are cities and municipalities. In states like Georgia and Florida, we do a lot of work for counties as well. Another big portion of our work is for water districts and river authorities, which are primarily state agencies and frequently own their own wholesale infrastructure for water and wastewater treatment.
Municipal Water Leader: How have your wastewater services changed over the history of the firm?
David Jackson: Let me narrow that down a little to the production of clean water from wastewater. Some of the firm’s earliest work concerned helping cities take waste and return it to the water environment without impinging on the environment. We have come a long way from the early 1900s to where we are today in terms of the quality of the water that we can produce and the safety of that water in the public environment.
The primary focus of water treatment in the United States from the beginning of the 20th century up to the Clean Water Act of 1972 was to partially remove the major pollutants from water and then to return it to the environment. The Clean Water Act set a different standard for what should be expected for the clean water environment and how to measure the performance of treatment facilities. That was a game changer for Freese and Nichols. It allowed the industry to develop specific countermeasures to remove pollutants and achieve a water quality far superior to what had previously been mandated. Everybody was now held to the same standards.
Over the last several decades, we’ve discovered that our technology and capabilities have advanced so far that we can now view wastewater as a resource. Other resources besides water can be safely recovered and reused from wastewater, including phosphorus and nitrogen, which are natural fertilizers with a finite global supply. There’s been a lot of discussion nationally about the advancement of biosolids treatment. We have the technology to make a safe, high-quality fertilizer out of what used to be human waste. This is similar to composting of wastes and other activities that have been common practice for decades.
Finally, wastewater can be a source of energy. The natural processes that we use in the treatment of domestic sewage generates methane gas, which can be harvested, cleaned up, and used to power facilities—even the wastewater treatment plants themselves. In some cases, it can even be placed back into compressed natural gas pipelines to fuel vehicles or serve other energy demands.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about some of your recent wastewater projects.
David Jackson: One of the more seminal projects was developed and led by the Colorado River Municipal Water District in Big Spring, Texas. It was and remains the first operating direct potable reuse facility in North America. The facility purifies treated effluent diverted from a local wastewater treatment plant, which typically would be sent back into a river or a lake; blends it in a pipeline with raw water from one of the district’s surface water reservoirs; and sends it to its municipal customers for further purification at their water treatment plant prior to use.
To harvest water directly from a wastewater plant and use it without first discharging it into a natural environment, we have to engineer that water to a much greater level of purity than it would have achieved in the natural environment. We do that because we want to make sure that we are not only addressing the potential for acute problems in the water that can make people ill, particularly viruses, giardia, or cryptosporidium, but also looking at the long-term safety of the purified water. We want to make sure that there are no metals, salts, or endocrine-disrupting compounds in the water. This requires an additional treatment sequence called full advanced technology (FAT), which is what the facility in Big Spring does. FAT takes the water that comes from the plant; runs it through a microfiltration process, which is typically used in water treatment for drinking water systems; purifies it even further through a reverse osmosis system; and then uses an advanced oxidant—UV-hydrogen peroxide, in this case—to further purify and oxidize any materials in the water. All that is done before the water is blended with the other water supplies and then treated again by the conventional water treatment plant. The Colorado River Municipal Water District has proven over many years and with the many millions of gallons of water recovered from this facility that it can treat that water safely and return it to its supplies.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us about some recent projects in which Freese and Nichols’s commitment to client service played a particularly important role?
David Jackson: That could be said of just about every project I’m currently involved in. We have been working with some of our clients for well over a century. The city of Fort Worth is a fine example of that. We’re currently doing two projects in Fort Worth’s Village Creek Water Resource Recovery Facility. Our relationship with Fort Worth goes back to 1894—it was one of our first clients—and our relationship with Village Creek goes back to the 1950s. Freese and Nichols has been involved in many of the major treatment facility improvement projects at that plant over the last seven decades.
Another good example is our relationship with the Trinity River Authority of Texas (TRA). Our nearly four-decade relationship with TRA has primarily focused on the authority’s wastewater treatment needs. It is a great client that I have the privilege of working with on multiple treatment plants on a daily basis. That is all thanks to the trust that we built with that client since the 1980s.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us about your approach to workforce development?
David Jackson: There are a lot of folks retiring from our industry and fewer coming in than we would like. The water and wastewater treatment industry represents a great opportunity for our high school and college graduates, and the industry needs to be doing a better job of communicating that. We need to preserve institutional knowledge by teaching others and preserving institutional knowledge through asset management programs and the knowledge databases of organizations like the Water Environment Federation and the American Water Works Association.
In particular, the people who are actually operating our water and wastewater treatment facilities are the unsung heroes of the water environment. These are people who do jobs that are frequently very dirty and that many of us are glad somebody else does for us, but they don’t always receive the same level of respect and appreciation that people in in other industries do. We need to value, recognize, and reward these professionals. Freese and Nichols as a firm and I personally appreciate the dedication with which these individuals create purified drinking water and protect our water environment through our wastewater services.