Frank Ferris is the president of Ferris, Flinn & Medina, LLC, a consulting engineering firm based outside of Harlingen, Texas, in the lower Rio Grande Valley. The firm provides consulting engineering services for water utilities, irrigation districts, municipalities, developers, and navigation districts. Today, one of the firm’s major focuses is helping its clients conserve water by improving the efficiency of their systems, particularly by piping open ditches and upgrading existing pipelines. One large current project involves building a 6,000-foot-long, 48-inch-diameter PVC pipeline for Hidalgo County Water Improvement District No. 3. In this interview, Mr. Ferris tells Municipal Water Leader about his firm’s activities and current projects.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Frank Ferris: I graduated from Texas A&M University in 1985 with a bachelor of science in civil engineering. I am from Harlingen, Texas, and after graduating I came back to Harlingen and began working with a consulting firm that specialized in water and wastewater. I was with that firm for about 13 years, and in that time I worked on projects for a lot of different municipalities, including Brownsville, Harlingen, and Laredo, specifically on the planning, design, and construction of water and wastewater distribution, collection, and treatment facilities.
In 1998, I went out on my own and continued water and wastewater consulting. Over the years, our firm has grown to about 20 people. I have three partners: two engineers and one surveyor. Our firm specializes in water. We began by doing a lot of development, and now we’re providing more water-related engineering services. Currently, I work as district engineer on a consulting basis for several irrigation districts in our area. The irrigation districts are about 100 years old, and there are a lot of opportunities for water conservation because of the age of the infrastructure. We have assisted our district clients in obtaining grants, such as the Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSMART grants, and by providing our services in implementing the conservation projects. Most of my work is centered on those irrigation districts.
Municipal Water Leader: How do you help your clients obtain grants like those?
Frank Ferris: WaterSMART is a competitive grant program. It provides funding to cover up to 50 percent of the cost of water projects. This year, the program has increased the funding amounts for its water and energy efficiency grants to $500,000 for funding group I projects—those that can be completed in 2 years—and up to $2,000,000 for funding group II projects—those that can be completed in 3 years. With regard to its drought resiliency projects, the amount for funding group I is $500,000 and the amount for funding group II is $1,500,000. The program has changed a little bit over the years in terms of its grading criteria. The most important thing to consider when applying for a Reclamation grant is whether you have a good project that conserves a lot of water. The more water you conserve, the more likely you are to successfully obtain a grant. Reclamation publishes a number of goals in its funding opportunity announcements; those goals are used as grading criteria when it considers which projects to fund. The most important thing, again, is conservation. If you have a canal that seeps a lot of water, Reclamation wants you to document the reduction in seepage that would result from the implementation of the proposed project. Recently, Reclamation has awarded a lot of points for the total volume of conservation. We perform seepage studies on canals to document how much conservation our projects will achieve. We often replace them with PVC pipe, and the losses from solid-wall PVC pipe are basically negligible, so you can conserve virtually all the water that would otherwise have been lost to seepage.
Municipal Water Leader: What other funding agencies do you work with?
Frank Ferris: The Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) also has an agricultural conservation grant program, which is intended for smaller projects. We’ve successfully acquired those grants for two of our projects. It’s probably a little more competitive, but it has been helpful. The TWDB has programs for essentially any water-related facility. Some of the programs are subsidized based on economic needs in the area, while others are subsidized based on program objectives. We assisted the United Irrigation District in acquiring an $8 million State Water Implementation Fund for Texas loan from the TWDB to fund the planning, design, land acquisition, and construction of a 670-acre-foot reservoir that allowed water conservation through better water management; it saves about 2,000 acre-feet a year.
Municipal Water Leader: Do most of your conservation projects involve piping previously open ditches?
Frank Ferris: Most of them do. Occasionally, our clients have some really old technology, like mortar-joint concrete pipe, that can be upgraded to PVC to save a substantial amount of water.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us about your recent project with Hidalgo County Water Board No. 3?
Frank Ferris: That project is a 6,000-foot-long, 48-inch-diameter PVC pipeline. It is C900 pipe, mostly pressure class 100, but some class 165 also. District 3 basically wanted to diversify its customer base. It is a highly efficient district, operating at around 90–95 percent efficiency, which is a competitive advantage against other districts in the area that run at 75–80 percent efficiency. If you have an end user with 10,000 acre-feet of water rights and its efficiency is increased from 80 percent to 95 percent, that would make 1,500 acre-feet of existing water rights available for beneficial use. Municipal water rights in our area have a capital value of about $3,000 per acre-foot, so that would represent about $4.5 million in capital savings.
Right now, District 3 is installing phase 1 of the line to diversify its customer base. The district is doing the project now so that it can install the pipeline while a new roadway is being constructed. Installing the line before the roadway is constructed saves quite a bit of money.
Municipal Water Leader: How far along are you in the construction process?
Frank Ferris: The construction is about 50 percent complete. The planning of this project took about 8 months. By the time it’s finished, it will have taken about a year and a half.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us about your work with Diamond Plastics?
Frank Ferris: Diamond Plastics makes large-diameter, solid-wall PVC pipe, which is really good pipe. It has an expected life exceeding 50 years, which is usually our design horizon, and suffers negligible losses. As long as the pipe is constructed well with the proper bedding, there will not be any problems. I use solid-wall PVC pipe quite often, and a lot of it is large diameter. Diamond Plastics is competitive in the large-diameter PVC market in our area, so we use a lot of its pipe. All my clients are public entities, so they have to bid any project above about $75,000. We end up bidding most of our projects, and Diamond Plastics is successful about 90 percent of the time. Diamond Plastics also has a really good engineering continuing education program that it puts on every year.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us about any trends you see in the industry today?
Frank Ferris: In our area, there’s a lot of growth, and we have a finite water supply. Water conservation is key to stretching out that finite water supply, so conservation projects are more and more important. We tend to our clients’ needs by searching for funding where it’s available.
Municipal Water Leader: Do your firm’s clients tend to supply water more for municipal or agricultural purposes?
Frank Ferris: In the lower Rio Grande Valley, people began building these systems for irrigation purposes about 100 years ago. As our area urbanizes and the cities have grown, the irrigation districts have begun supplying raw water to the municipalities for treatment. Most of the public water systems in our area are supplied by irrigation districts, which deliver it to their water treatment plants. As the area is urbanized, irrigation districts’ water rights are typically converted to municipal rights and sold or contracted to the municipalities for their use.