The North Texas Municipal Water District (NTMWD) provides water, wastewater, and solid waste disposal services to 1.8 million people in a rapidly growing area of Texas north of the Dallas–Fort Worth metroplex. To serve this population through the year 2040, NTMWD is building the first new major reservoir in Texas in 30 years, Bois d’Arc Lake. Jenna Covington has recently risen to head the NTMWD as its new executive director and general manager. In this interview, she tells us about progress on Bois d’Arc Lake, NTMWD’s plans to secure water supplies through 2080, and the district’s experience of the February 2021 Winter Storm Uri.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Jenna Covington: My education and career have been dedicated to working in the water industry. It’s been a wonderfully rewarding industry to work in because we provide life-sustaining services to our communities. I received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in environmental engineering from Texas Tech University. Upon graduation, I spent a number of years working for a global engineering consulting firm, where I provided assistance to water utilities across northern Texas. A little over 6 years ago, I joined the staff of NTMWD to oversee our wastewater operations function. That was a really rewarding experience. I’m now transitioning into the role of executive director and general manager of the district. I am truly honored, humbled, and excited to serve in this new capacity.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about NTMWD.
Jenna Covington: We provide essential water, wastewater, and solid waste disposal services to around 1.8 million people across 10 counties in northern Texas. Water service is how we started: We began providing wholesale water services to communities around 1956. As these communities have grown in population, so has the scope and complexity of the system we use to meet their needs. Today, we provide wholesale treated water to about 80 communities. To do that, we treat an average of 370 million gallons per day (MGD) of raw water supplies at 6 water treatment plants with a total capacity of over 876 MGD. That treated water is then transferred to 77 delivery points in over 600 miles of transmission pipeline.
In response to requests from the cities that we serve, we began providing wastewater services in 1972. This allowed the consolidation of smaller municipal wastewater treatment plants into a regional system, reducing the costs to the cities and streamlining operations. Today, the effective treatment and purification of wastewater is a key way in which we’re helping to meet the future water needs of the region. We provide wastewater services through 13 wastewater treatment plants with a combined capacity of over 163 MGD. We also have 10 interceptor systems, totaling over 226 miles of large-diameter pipeline, that collect wastewater from the communities we serve and transfer it to those treatment plants.
The concept of regionalization of services proved to be effective, and in 1979, at the request of our cities, we expanded into solid waste services. When we did that, we agreed that the cities would continue to collect the solid waste from their residents and would deliver it to one of our three transfer stations or to our landfill, which is located in Melissa, Texas. Our staff transports the waste from the transfer stations to our landfill. The landfill accepts, on average, over 1 million tons of solid waste per year.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about current progress on the Bois d’Arc Lake reservoir.
Jenna Covington: Bois d’Arc Lake is a really exciting project. There’s a lot of excitement within our service area and also in the area in which the reservoir is located. Bois d’Arc Lake is the first major water reservoir in Texas to be built in nearly 30 years. Getting to this point in the project has taken over 20 years. The 16,641‑acre lake will be located northeast of the city of Bonham in Fannin County. The lake’s name honors local history, since the bois d’arc tree is a symbol of the region. Bois d’Arc Lake will meet the water needs and demands of our growing region until 2040. We are thankful to have received low-interest loans through the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) to pay for nearly all the projects, which will save the district and the cities that we serve millions of dollars in financing costs.
We reached a major milestone when we began impounding water on April 14, 2021. How long the lake will take to fill depends on rainfall in the watershed. At the dam site, construction crews are still topping off the dam embankment and finishing the construction of the weir, the spillway, and the raw water pump station. Other work at the lake includes completing the lake administration offices and the three public boat ramps that are included in the project. We are in the process of testing the recently completed 35‑mile, 90‑inch pipeline that will deliver raw water from Bois d’Arc Lake to the new water treatment plant located near Leonard, Texas. The 84‑inch treated water pipeline is progressing too, with over 5½ of its 25 miles having been installed already. We are planning for the lake and the associated water treatment and transmission system to be operational by summer 2022.
Municipal Water Leader: You mentioned that this reservoir is supposed to fulfill your needs until the year 2040. Does that mean that you will have to start looking at a new reservoir before that year?
Jenna Covington: Yes. One of the things that we’re currently working on is our long-range water supply planning effort. This will help us identify and evaluate potential raw water supply sources for NTMWD through 2080, develop prioritized sets of actions needed to pursue the projects that are selected through that evaluation, and update our capital improvement program to meet those needs.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us more about your long-range water supply effort?
Jenna Covington: The future supplies that we’re looking at are much farther from the Dallas–Fort Worth metroplex. That reinforces the need to partner with other agencies to reduce costs. As we look to the future, we’ll be looking to build on existing partnerships with peer utilities to meet the needs not only of our service area but of the metroplex as a whole. Additionally, conservation continues to be a key aspect of our future water supply planning, and we continually explore opportunities to educate our customers and encourage water conservation.
Municipal Water Leader: Are there any other infrastructure projects that you are working on?
Jenna Covington: The growth in this region is the primary driver for much of our capital improvement program. One recent project is the recently completed Trinity River main stem pump station and pipeline. We are leaders in water reuse, and this project will allow us to fully use our East Fork water reuse project, also known as the wetlands, which covers 1,840 acres and provides natural filtration for an average of 90 MGD of water, which we then pump through a 42‑mile, 84‑inch pipeline back to Lavon Lake, where it is blended and stored until it undergoes treatment at the Wylie water treatment plant for distribution as drinking water. The construction of the main stem pump station was made possible by our partnership with the Trinity River Authority, from which we purchase effluent flows. The project consists of an intake and pump station that includes four 1,500‑horsepower pumps and 17 miles of 72‑inch‑diameter pipeline. This project is a great example of how water reuse is critical to providing critical services to our growing region.
Another infrastructure project is our Sister Grove regional water resource recovery facility, which is intended to address the growth in our service area on the wastewater side. It is projected to come online in 2023 at 16 MGD and to be expanded by an additional 16 MGD in 2025. The plant itself is estimated to cost $546 million, and it will take an additional
$118 million to construct the conveyance infrastructure to get the wastewater to the plant. Thankfully, we were able to partner with the TWDB for the financing of the plant. Because of that, we expect to save over $160 million in interest costs over the 30‑year period of the bonds.
Looking more broadly, we currently have 62 projects with a value of over $1 million each across all our service areas. The combined construction costs of these projects amount to $2.245 billion.
We have a thriving economy in our 2,200‑square-mile service area, and lots of people are deciding that this is a great place to live. It’s imperative that we have infrastructure in place to handle the growth that we’re experiencing now and that we expect to experience in the future. Additionally, we have aging infrastructure across all our services whose reliability we need to ensure for decades to come. We will continue to monitor and improve that infrastructure.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us about the district’s experience during the February winter storm?
Jenna Covington: Our dedicated team of professionals pulled together and worked to maintain essential services during that winter storm. The NTMWD employees who are responsible for providing safe, reliable drinking water; wastewater treatment; and solid waste disposal worked long hours to make sure the operational challenges could be overcome, and we continued to provide service throughout the event. Facing numerous challenges, our employees persevered with courage and put service before self. Crews did the same by working under extreme conditions to solve problems caused by frozen pipes and equipment and to ensure the delivery of fuel to emergency generators at water and wastewater pump stations, lift stations, and plants. Our laboratory personnel maintained testing operations to ensure that safe, clean, treated drinking water was being delivered to members and customers. NTMWD executives and supervisors kept in close contact with officials and communities that are served by the district and with our energy providers. Some employees were working double shifts and others were sleeping on cots in the control room and other facilities to be on site and available to quickly respond to operational issues. Personnel were working outside their regular job duties and jumping in to assist where they could.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us about your Waterworks training program and why you decided to develop it?
Jenna Covington: The district created the Waterworks training program in collaboration with Collin College, with the aid of a state-funded grant, to address the growing shortage of workers in the water and wastewater treatment industries. The Waterworks training program consists of two training paths, each aimed at gaining a class D license: one for water operators (comprising two 20‑hour classes and one 24‑hour class) and the other for wastewater operators (comprising four 20‑hour classes). After completing the training and attaining a license, participants had the opportunity to apply for a 5‑week paid internship at the district.
On the wastewater side of things, 15 of the 36 students who took the classes obtained their class D licenses, 8 of them interned at NTMWD, we hired 3, and 1 went to work at another municipality. That effort has resulted in at least four individuals choosing a career in water. The people who go through the program don’t have to come to work for us; they will be extremely valuable to any water sector employer.
On the water side of things, we completed our first round of classes in March 2021. We had 33 students start the course, 21 complete all the courses offered, 14 apply to take the exam to become licensed, and 10 be approved for the exam. We’re optimistic that more will continue to obtain employment and licenses through this program.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us about the district’s efforts to ensure that its systems are working in an environmentally friendly manner?
Jenna Covington: We must adhere to stringent federal and state regulatory standards in our operations and facilities in our service areas of water, wastewater, and solid waste. We consistently meet or surpass the guidelines set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). In addition, NTMWD’s environmental laboratory analyzes water and wastewater samples to ensure they meet drinking water regulations and other water quality criteria. The laboratory itself is accredited by the TCEQ for potable and nonpotable parameters and conducts over 200,000 tests per year.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us about your vision for the future of the district?
Jenna Covington: My vision for the future of NTMWD is to live out our vision statement: regional service through unity, meeting our region’s needs today and tomorrow. I will lead us in this direction by acting as a collaborative leader who brings people together to provide excellent service. The critical services we provide are essential to the high standard of living that we’ve become accustomed to. Our staff, our board, our members, our customers, and our critical partners will work together to provide dependable, high-quality services to the 1.8 million residents of today and the 3.7 million residents of tomorrow.