Trinity River Authority (TRA), created in 1955 and based in Arlington, Texas, aims to promote the conservation, reclamation, protection, and development of the natural resources of the Trinity River basin for the benefit of the public. TRA provides service to more than 60 cities, districts, and other large water users in the Trinity River basin. In this interview, TRA General Manager Kevin Ward tells Municipal Water Leader about how the authority has overcome the challenges of the pandemic to continue operations.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background and about the TRA.
Kevin Ward: I’ve been in the water business since 1984. I started out managing utility districts and operations. I was a controller, a corporate secretary, and a vice president for a couple of different management firms in Austin, Texas. Then I worked for the State of Texas in a series of positions, eventually running the Texas Water Development Board from 2002 to 2011. I was recruited to become the TRA’s general manager in 2011 and have worked here ever since. During my time working for the State of Texas, I got some experience in training for emergency operations. I worked there during the 9/11 period, and we did training and prepared plans for a potential pandemic.
The TRA was established by legislation in 1955. Its primary mission was promoting economic development in the basin and stewarding its natural resources. We were able to execute contracts with the federal government and be sponsors for federal reservoir projects. We also own, operate, and sell debt for large regional wastewater and water treatment facilities and do environmental studies. We have jurisdiction over an 18,000‑square‑mile basin that starts just west of IH-35, near Wichita Falls and the border with Oklahoma; crosses Fort Worth and Dallas; goes down the coast; and comes out to the east of Galveston by the Trinity arm of the Galveston Bay system. Since our service area encompasses both the Dallas–Fort Worth metroplex and parts of Houston, we provide water and sewer services to areas that encompass half the population of the state. We’re a wholesale provider, so we do that through relationships with about 60 entities, including districts, cities, airports, and racetracks. We provide raw and treated water, do wastewater treatment, operate dams, and sponsor saltwater barrier services. Our largest wastewater plant is rated to process 186 million gallons a day (MGD). We also have an 86 MGD water treatment facility in the middle of the Dallas–Fort Worth metroplex.
The 25 members of our board are appointed by the governor of Texas to staggered 6‑year terms. We meet on the fourth Wednesday of every other month. We have standing committees to take care of business in between those meetings and an executive committee that can take actions on behalf of the board, which are then recorded at the next board meeting. We elect officers from within the membership of the board in elections held every 2 years. The president of the board appoints committee chairs from among the elected officers and assigns the board members to the committees.
Municipal Water Leader: How has the COVID‑19 pandemic affected your operations?
Kevin Ward: We are an essential service, so we weren’t excused from work, and we cannot lay people off and still comply with our permits and service obligations. We have a fairly low operating overhead as it is—we mostly have operational personnel.
When on January 27 I first read about a novel virus coming out of China that might cause the pandemic that experts had predicted, I tasked my senior staff to look at our other emergency response plans and put together a pandemic response plan. They went to work quickly, coordinating with all the appropriate managers, and by February 3, we were ordering laptops.
Our administrative staff has been able to work from home, but the employees who work in the plants have had to come in. In our plant operations, we tried to stay ahead of the pandemic. Early on, we got additional personal protective equipment (PPE) and started doing training on how to socially distance in the workplace. We staggered our employees’ shifts so that people weren’t crossing paths as much. Internal communication and education helped to ease panic and concern and to provide strategic guidance to employees. We had already been working on virtual meetings, using DocuSign and similar services, and making sure we had adequate security software to allow our systems to function in a telecommuting environment. This was partly because a lot of our people travel for conferences and things like that. We had been testing CudaLaunch for our remote operations, because we had previously been using a different system that didn’t have the capacity we needed; luckily, we had taken care of that right before all this hit. We set people up with laptop computers, trained them in the software for accessing files, and required everyone to undergo security training. Within a week or so, we had reduced the staffing of the main offices for each of our facilities to 10–25 percent of the normal level.
We haven’t been allowing any nonemployees into our buildings. We got noncontact thermometers and require anyone coming into our plants or facilities to have their temperature taken. We aren’t allowing any meetings in the office that don’t deal with safety, and we aren’t allowing anyone to go to meetings outside the office. Everything has to be done virtually or by phone. We have hired additional people to come in and disinfect, placed massive orders for sanitizer, and even started making our own.
At the board level, we have to deal with a few quirks of state law. There’s a big focus in Texas on open government and the public’s ability to participate in meetings. If meetings are not made public, you can only take care of urgent business. The big limitation that we are facing is that a lot of web software is insufficiently secure for public meetings and is not familiar to the people who might want to attend our meetings. To solve that, we’re holding meetings by phone. We found some good phone software, and we’ve conducted all of our meetings using it.
We have not had a full board meeting by phone, but we held an executive committee meeting by phone in April, and it worked quite well. We went ahead and held all our committee meetings and did our business as usual. A big part of that success was due to advanced testing and dress rehearsals. We use Webex Meetings internally, and we sent our presentations out to the board members in advance and talked them through them over the phone. I was amazed at how smoothly it went. We coached people in advance and gave them scripts so that they knew to tell the public when they could speak. We’re contemplating doing a full board meeting in June that way. Our state leadership staff have not recommended that state agencies move quickly toward normal business. Many people are extremely uncomfortable with the prospect of gathering together in large groups or traveling.
We don’t meet with our customers in person, either. We have been holding customer advisory meetings via Webex, our most recent one being for a capital program review
with three or four cities. They’ve all taken well to them. For a lot of organizations that our managers are members of, we are using Zoom and other tools, because it’s not going through our servers where it can get into our system. I’m doing that on the open-air web, and there’s no real threat because we’ve got firewalls all throughout our systems.
Municipal Water Leader: How many employees do you have?
Kevin Ward: We have about 465 on staff right now. We have nearly 300 working in the plants; many of the others are involved in construction. You can’t control how people behave in the field, but we have asked them to wear protective gear and face shields. We have hand sanitizer in every vehicle, and encourage people to wash their hands as soon as they get back. We have asked our contractors to give us notice any time one of their employees goes home sick, tests positive, or is exposed so that we can quarantine any of our employees who have been around them. We’ve done that with a total of five or six employees so far, and fortunately have had no cases. I attribute that to our caution.
We have a few employees who are a little bit more relaxed about wearing their face masks than they probably should be. At some point, you have to draw the line. Folks are out there saying that their civil liberties are being infringed upon, but our employees work for us, so we can require them to wear masks. We’re doing our best to make sure that we keep our people, our customers, and the public safe while still providing open access to our official meetings.
There has been some concern about the transmission of COVID‑19 through human waste. That probably stems from concerns that arose during the Ebola outbreak. COVID‑19 is not anything like Ebola in that sense. Ebola didn’t spread as prolifically as COVID‑19, but it lasted a long time, and traces of it were found in human waste coming from hospitals. In the case of COVID‑19, there has been no evidence of anything other than the RNA in the waste stream. That means it’s a dead, inactive virus—it’s just trace genetic material. There have been some studies on that in the Boston area, and we’re working with the Water Environment Federation on that. We do land application of biosolids, which we treat to A-B level. There is no current evidence of a virus making it through that, but we test the biosolids constantly to make sure we meet all the standards and are researching whether there is a need to test them for the SARS-2 virus that causes COVID-19 or not.
Municipal Water Leader: What is the most innovative thing that you’ve done to maintain your workflow?
Kevin Ward: Teleworking and telecommuting. This was not something we had in place prior to this pandemic, but we quickly responded to it by deploying laptops to our people. At one point, one or two of our employees had to be home to take care of young children but weren’t working from home. There was a government relief program that would pay two-thirds of someone’s salary if they had to stay home to take care of children, but we thought it would be better to have those people work from home. We found duties they could perform at home and decided that if their supervisors could check in on them regularly, it ought to work. In fact, we’ve gotten as much done as usual, and perhaps more. It’s amazing how much we’ve cleared our backlog through working at home. We currently have 72 employees fully telecommuting and 69 coming in a few days a week and telecommuting the rest of the time. It took a few weeks to set up. We prioritized our highest-risk employees, followed by those who worked in the most concentrated work spaces. Our information technology (IT) staff performed magnificently—the majority of the 141 laptops we are now using had not been bought before we started, and many employees had never been trained to work remotely.
We know that at some point we will need to have more people back in the workplace, so we are already setting it up in a secure and hygienic way. We’re putting in plastic barriers in open areas. We’ll probably come up with a whole lot of different ways to do things. We may even end up with some virtual meetings. I think the legislature will try to address the question of open meetings in its next session. There’s got to be a way to hold meetings that are open to the public through the tools we have now.
Municipal Water Leader: What advice do you have for other agencies?
Kevin Ward: Be proactive. Make sure that you consider security and safety first in anything you do. If you use that as your guardrail, the only other thing you will have to do is to move quickly. Put a decisionmaking process structure in place if you don’t already have one. That has helped us to be successful. Our leadership team has been meeting daily via Webex for as little as 30 minutes or as long as 2 hours, processing all the information. We get reports on our stocks of PPE, our equipment needs, our personnel situation, and our IT situation. We conveyed policy changes on the fly and got them approved and implemented as quickly as possible. The employees appreciated the heck out of it. Move quickly, have a structure in place to make and execute decisions, and communicate. Always try to get your job done. At the end of the day, that’s the most important thing. People expect government to function; you don’t have the luxury of just putting it aside for a while.