The North Texas Municipal Water District (NTMWD) provides treated water to 13 member cities and other customers across a rapidly growing region with a population of 1.8 million. It is currently working on the first major Texas reservoir in 30 years, Bois D’Arc Lake. In light of the population growth in its area, NTMWD is also looking into developing new wastewater treatment facilities.
In this interview, NTMWD Interim Executive Director and General Manager Rodney Rhoades tells Municipal Water Leader about the district’s history, current services, and plans for the future.
Municipal Water Leader: Please about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Rodney Rhoades: I have spent the last 35 years in municipal, county, and now public-sector water district work. My experience ranges from engineering and transportation to finance and ultimately executive leadership. I currently serve as the interim executive director and general manager of NTMWD. Our previous executive director retired, and I was appointed as interim director in mid-April. I’ve been with the district for almost 5 years now. I was previously deputy director for administrative operations, covering personnel, human resources, financial operations, and information technology and helping manage the lab for the district.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about the district and its current services.
Rodney Rhoades: The state legislature created the district in 1951. There were originally 10 member cities that participated in the district. We began providing more services in 1956. We had a population of about 30,000 at that time. Since then, northern Texas has experienced explosive growth, and today we serve 1.8 million people in 80 different communities throughout the region. In 1973, we added the city of Richardson; in 1998, we added the city of Allen; and in 2001, we added the city of Frisco, so we now have 13 member cities. In accordance with our enabling legislation, our board has two members for each city with a population of 5,000 or more and one member for each city with a population lower than that. The City of Farmersville is the only one of our member cities that falls into the latter category, so we currently have 25 board members who handle district operations.
Municipal Water Leader: Who are the district’s customers?
Rodney Rhoades: We have approximately 34 customer contracts with nonmember cities, municipal districts, and utility districts.
Municipal Water Leader: Who are the end users of the water?
Rodney Rhoades: We serve a combination of residential and commercial end users. We provide the treated water to our members and customer cities, and they deliver that water to residential and commercial customers via their own systems.
Municipal Water Leader: What is the source of the district’s water?
Rodney Rhoades: We have multiple water sources. Back in the 1950s, we started with a single reservoir, Lake Lavon. Lavon was and continues to be our workhorse in terms of its ability to provide raw water for us to treat at our treatment plants. In light of the growth that we experienced in the 1990s, we began securing water rights and the ability to draw water from additional reservoirs in the North Texas region. We also developed one of the largest manmade wetlands in the United States for water reuse purposes; that contributes to our resources as well. We’re currently in the process of developing Bois D’Arc Lake. It’s the first major reservoir in the state of Texas in nearly 30 years. It is a $1.6 billion project that includes the reservoir itself; pump stations; pipelines; and our treatment plant, which will be about 30 miles from the reservoir dam. The district will own and operate the reservoir and will be the sole water right holder. We also are partnering with the county that we are building the reservoir in to rebuild the roads and bridges that will be affected when we inundate the reservoir.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us about the process of conceptualizing, planning, and permitting the Bois D’Arc Lake project?
Rodney Rhoades: We began planning the project back in the 1980s. After we identified the site for the reservoir, we began educating local governments on what we were planning to do and securing rights of way in small parcels. We began working on our permitting process in 2003, continued it while we were securing the rights of way, and ultimately got our 404 permits in February 2018.
Municipal Water Leader: You mentioned that this is the first major reservoir in Texas in 30 years. How does it compare in size to other reservoirs that have been built in the last few decades?
Rodney Rhoades: By the standards of the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB), a major reservoir has a conservation storage capacity of 5,000 acre-feet or more. The last major reservoir was built about 30 years ago. As for comparison in size, Lake Lavon has approximately 118,700 acre-feet of annual firm yield, while Bois D’Arc Lake will have approximately 121,000 acre-feet of annual firm yield. Even though Lavon has more surface acres than Bois D’Arc Lake (around 21,400 surface acres, compared with Bois D’Arc’s 16,641), the hydrologic properties of Bois D’Arc Lake mean its yield is comparable to that of Lake Lavon. The Upper Trinity Regional Water District is also constructing Lake Ralph Hall in Fannin County, which will have 39,200 acre-feet of firm yield annually.
Municipal Water Leader: How did the district go about raising the $1.6 billion for the project?
Rodney Rhoades: Once we finally had an idea of the cost and the scope of this project, we brought on Freese and Nichols to assist us with the planning and cost estimates. In 2016, once we had that finalized, we began partnering with the TWDB, which provides planning and financial support for water development in Texas, to prepare for our application for financing and to plan out the financing structure and the process for issuing bonds. We did it incrementally in three different issuances. That has yielded over $240 million in interest costs over the life of the bond. The TWDB also approved $1.477 billion in low-interest State Water Implementation Fund for Texas funding for Bois D’Arc Lake and associated projects. We are now partnering with the TWDB on other projects, and we are already seeing tremendous savings as a result, which helps us with the overall rates that we charge our members and customer cities.
Municipal Water Leader: What are the district’s other top issues today?
Rodney Rhoades: Bois D’Arc is still in the construction stage, but we are getting to a point where we can make reliable predictions about the final completion of its construction. We have shifted gears and have started to focus on wastewater. We began wastewater services for the region in 1972. To address the region’s tremendous population growth and the resulting growth in demand for wastewater services, we are developing a new regional water resource recovery facility in the northwestern part of the region. The permit for this project is one of the largest that has been issued by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for this type of facility. We have partnered with the TWDB on that as well, and we have seen some tremendous savings as a result. On February 27, 2020, the TWDB approved $459 million in low-interest funding from its Clean Water State Revolving Fund program for the wastewater facility.
Municipal Water Leader: Are you looking into any wastewater reuse or recycling projects?
Rodney Rhoades: Yes; we reuse about 20 percent of the effluent that goes back into our streams and ultimately back into the river. We pull that effluent out of the river downstream and flow it through our wetlands project.
Municipal Water Leader: How has the district changed its operations during the coronavirus pandemic?
Rodney Rhoades: We have allowed most employees who can work from home—myself included—to do so. For those who must work on site, like operators and maintainers, we have staggered their shifts and had them work in teams so that the same individuals always work on the same schedule. In the event that someone becomes infected, only their team will be required to isolate. This prevents the other teams that are operating and maintaining our systems from being exposed.
The governor of Texas recently extended the easing of the regulations prescribed by the Texas Open Meetings Act, which has basically enabled us to do our business via teleconference. We are using Webex to hold board meetings and committee meetings. We had previously not had that ability because of the Open Meetings Act, and it’s been a bit of a challenge to get it all set up. However, it has been successful.
We have not had any employees infected, although some of our employees had to quarantine because of travel at the beginning of the crisis. I’m proud of the fact that our workforce is healthy. We’ve been able to adjust our schedules and accommodate to the changes this situation has required.
Municipal Water Leader: Do you foresee retaining any of the changes you have made after the pandemic abates?
Rodney Rhoades: I brainstormed with the staff a couple of weeks ago about the lessons we have learned during this crisis. We’re looking at creating some policies that will enable employees to work from home after this is over, and we’re looking at implementing technology that will allow us to stop relying on paper copies of documents for signatures or the approval process. We hadn’t addressed those issues before, but the crisis forced us to. I think that some of the changes we have made with technology, telecommuting, and scheduling will become commonplace as we go forward.
Municipal Water Leader: What is your vision for the future of the district?
Rodney Rhoades: I am hopeful for the district. We were founded on a regional partnership with our member cities and have expanded from that. We can continue to evolve as the organization grows and looks for ways to improve efficiency throughout its operations. That will ensure that our member and customer cities are getting efficient, quality services. I hope that we can set the stage for continued growth within the region and continued partnerships throughout the state, including with the TWDB and the Texas Water Conservation Association.