Tom Kula recently retired as the executive director of the North Texas Municipal Water District (NTMWD). After serving 32 years in the U.S. Army, Mr. Kula went on to serve people in a different way by spending 6 years at NTMWD, helping to ensure the 1.8 million people it serves had access to the vital water resources they require. In this second phase of his professional life, Mr. Kula tackled many challenges confronting NTMWD in its ongoing quest for new opportunities to fully serve the region.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Tom Kula: I grew up on the Illinois shores of Lake Michigan, in a small town called North Chicago, about 30 miles north of the city of Chicago. We lived by the lake, and I loved to swim and fish. Our family vacations always included visits to wonderful Midwest lakes. I’ve always been drawn to water. Later in life, I figured that out. Water is life!
I graduated from West Point Military Academy in 1982 as a civil engineer and spent 32 years in the U.S. Army, finishing up in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, where I retired as a brigadier general. That segment of my career ended 6 years ago, at which time I was in charge of the Southwestern Division of the Army Corps, which is headquartered in Dallas. That position had brought me to Texas, and because I liked the area, the people, and the weather, I retired here.
In that last position, I supported military construction and civil works projects across parts of five states: Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, southern Kansas, and southern Missouri. Among those civil works projects were a total of 90 reservoirs in that five-state region, and I had the opportunity to visit a lot of the lakes that the Army Corps operated and managed, mostly for flood control but also often for water supply. When I was contemplating retirement, I realized I wanted a second career in the water industry.
When I became aware of the availability of the executive director position at NTMWD, I knew it was a perfect opportunity to continue to serve the public. I had always wanted to do something that involved water resources. The district serves 1.8 million North Texans with essential services, including safe reliable drinking water, wastewater services, and solid waste services.
The opportunity to help provide essential services really mattered to me. Many years ago I saw something that left a lasting impression on me about how precious safe, clean drinking water is. During my army career, about 25 years ago, I was in Haiti. I was driving along one of the main roads in Port-au-Prince and was struck by the sheer level of poverty—something most Americans just cannot imagine. I saw a young mother with a toddler, washing herself and her child with the water in a roadside ditch—an image I’ve never forgotten. They had no access to clean, safe water to bathe in or to drink. Readily available safe water is so important to public health. We are blessed and fortunate in the United States, and we should not take that for granted. I was proud to serve at NTMWD with our team of professionals to provide those essential services.
Municipal Water Leader: How did you hear about the position at NTMWD?
Tom Kula: I was due to retire from the military, and when I mentioned to a friend that I was working on my résumé, he told me that NTMWD’s current executive director was retiring and suggested that I would be a good fit for the position. It sounded perfect, so I quickly applied, had multiple interviews, and was hired. I formally retired from the army, and about 3 weeks later, in May 2014, took over the executive director position.
Municipal Water Leader: Would tell us about your time at NTMWD and discuss some of the biggest tasks that you and the district worked on during that time?
Tom Kula: Over the past 6 years, we took on the opportunity to successfully lead and manage change. Our service area is one of the fastest-growing areas in Texas. When I started with NTMWD, the district was serving 1.5 million people. Today, just 6 years later, that number is 1.8 million. The population of our service area is projected to grow to more than 3 million by 2040. In light of this growth, major changes were required in terms of people, programs, and projects.
NTMWD’s 25‑member board of directors is made up of appointed directors from the district’s 13 member cities. During my time as executive director, there was a need to add appropriate positions, people, and leaders to right size the organization and ensure that we could reliably provide the essential services needed to keep up with the growth. In 2015 and 2016, we added trained operators, maintainers, and engineers to adequately and safely operate our plants, maintain our infrastructure, and design and build for growth in the region. When the COVID‑19 pandemic hit, the district was well prepared to continue providing essential services. We had the right number of trained and willing people to continue operations. Earlier organizational initiatives prepared the district well for this.
The district was also in need of some critical programs, and I had the support of the board of directors to develop them. We started by developing a strategic plan. The district had a vision and mission, but it had not yet developed goals for the future or a road map for success. The board of directors and staff started that process immediately upon my arrival in 2014. Our strategic plan included a vision, a mission, five goals, and core values, all of which have been updated along the way and remain in place today. It was a fun and productive exercise for the district.
Safety was the first major program improvement we wanted to focus on. Many of NTMWD’s missions and tasks are high risk. Our people work with chemicals, around high power, with large pumps and motors, and in enclosed spaces. They do a number tasks daily that can be dangerous if people are not focused and trained properly. We improved our safety culture and practices because of a commitment by NTMWD’s leaders and all its employees.
Next, we focused on an improved maintenance program and on implementing a fully computerized maintenance management system to schedule, record, and manage the preventive maintenance of our water, wastewater, and solid waste infrastructure. NTMWD has over 500 miles of pipeline and numerous large pumps and motors, and it operates 14 wastewater treatment plants, 3 transfer stations, and a large landfill.
A major outcome of this initiative was that it helped us respond to lingering deficiencies that had been identified by a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) review that had been conducted just before I started with the district. We were able to successfully address and resolve those problems by the end of my first year with the organization. A big part of it was simply following our maintenance plan,which in turn prevented overflows of our wastewater system, which had been one of the concerns noted in the EPA report. The result was that on the final review, rather than levying fines or initiating legal action against the district, the EPA issued a letter essentially noting the progress and urging us to keep up the good work.
In 2014, we projected a huge increase in construction projects to provide for growth, replace aging infrastructure, and implement new technologies to meet regulatory requirements. We had to prepare for this surge in projects. In 2014, NTMWD’s capital construction program was funded at about $100 million a year in projects authorized. Just 5 years later, in 2019, the capital program had grown to $900 million—a nearly tenfold increase in expenditures. While the program included projects in water, wastewater, and solid waste, the vast majority were projects for water-related infrastructure. The capital program we had developed by 2019 was the largest in the district’s history. A huge thanks is due to Deputy Director for Engineering Joe Stankiewicz and his team.
Municipal Water Leader: Of all the things you worked on, what was the most significant challenge?
Tom Kula: There were two main challenges. The first was the work with the EPA that I mentioned earlier. That turned out to be a success story for us. It’s important to accomplish our mission, but we also need take care of the environment at the same time. We worked closely with the EPA in the development of our action plan to make sure our wastewater systems were operating the way they should be, and we addressed all the areas discussed in its 2013 inspection. We had some real heroes who made this happen—Jenna Covington, our wastewater system leader, deserves a lot of credit for leading the team.
Our greatest challenge was also our greatest opportunity: the initiative to build the first major reservoir in the state of Texas in 30 years. When I arrived in 2014, the district had been working for a decade to get a permit for a new reservoir called Bois D’Arc Lake. We desperately needed it to provide water for our growing population. A team effort by the board of directors, the staff, and our consultants successfully achieved a state water rights permit in June 2015. We successfully secured a federal permit from the Army Corps on February 1, 2018. Deputy Director for Operations Mike Rickman deserves a great deal of credit for his work and leadership over more than a decade, which made this possible. We immediately started the construction of all the major projects for the reservoir, and the district is now halfway to completing the reservoir. The total cost of the project is $1.6 billion, and the project includes a 2‑mile-long dam, a water intake, a pumping station, 60 miles of raw water and treated water pipeline, a water treatment plant, and the mitigation work required by our permits. The project has remained on schedule throughout and is set to be completed and delivering water to our region by spring 2022.
Municipal Water Leader: Do you have any advice for other professionals considering a second career in the water sector?
Tom Kula: It’s a job anyone seeking a second career or even starting their first career should consider. I would recommend it to anyone graduating from high school or college or to veterans like myself. A career in water is something you can pursue with passion—water is life. For me, it was rewarding to be part of and to lead an organization that provides essential services. It is a career field that requires all levels of skilled employees. We need young men and women fresh out of high school who can go to trade school to become operators and maintainers. We need college graduates to be biologists, environmentalists, regulators, and engineers. Water is a growth industry. The sector needs visionary leaders to look ahead and plan for how to best meet the substantial water-related needs of future.
Municipal Water Leader: What were the most important lessons that you learned over your 6 years with NTMWD?
Tom Kula: My 6 years at NTMWD provided example after example of how good people working together toward common goals makes the difference. There’s a quote from Mattie Stepanek I just love: “Unity is strength … when there is teamwork and collaboration, wonderful things can be achieved.” I was fortunate to work with a great group of people. I could see that there were already great leaders at the district when I got there, and we were able to build a team that is even stronger today.
I feel fortunate to have been part of something that really mattered. When I started in 2014, it was the fourth year of a major period of drought in Texas. During my first 6 months on the job, we had major water conservation requirements in place and no idea when it might begin to rain again. We later shifted to wondering when it might stop raining, but that’s been good because it keeps the reservoir levels up. However, heavy rains can cause issues with wastewater systems, so there are tradeoffs. I truly experienced the full gamut of management issues that can affect a municipal water district, including drought, wet weather, operational changes, compliance matters, major state and federal permitting, and the oversight of the construction of a new reservoir. It has been the opportunity of a lifetime! When I departed, I thanked our district employees and board for the opportunity to ride for the brand.