When Tom Kula retired from a 32-year Army career, “I wanted to continue serving, but in a different capacity,” he said.
He found the perfect fit as Executive Director of the North Texas Municipal Water District (NTMWD), a role he’s held since 2014. “We provide essential services for one of the fastest-growing regions in not only Texas, but the nation,” Kula said.
Headquartered in Wylie, Texas, NTMWD supplies water, wastewater, and solid waste services to more than 1.7 million people in 80 communities over 2,000 square miles. With the North Texas population predicted to double over the next 50 years, NTMWD increased its annual capital program from $100 million five years ago to more than $700 million this year. Their projects include the state’s first new, major reservoir in nearly 30 years. Construction began last spring and includes an almost 2-mile-long dam that will create the 16,641-acre North Texas Municipal Lake, capable of storing 120 billion gallons of water when it finishes in 2022.
Kula’s military career prepared him well for the challenges of the area’s increasing water infrastructure needs. In 1982, Kula earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York. He then served in a variety of assignments, including combat deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and as Commanding General of the Southwestern Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in Dallas. With annual programs totaling $5.4 billion, the Southwestern Division oversaw more than 90 reservoirs providing flood control and water supplies for millions of people.
In his interview with Texas Contractor, Kula shares more about lessons learned throughout his career and how NTMWD is working to meet current and future demand.
What led you to a military career?
I wanted to serve my country. I knew if I were selected for admission to the United States Military Academy, it would provide a fantastic education and career opportunities. After graduation, I owed the Army five years – and ended up staying for 32 years. I fell in love with being a soldier, an Engineer Officer, serving alongside great Americans, and the life of service.
What professional achievement makes you proudest?
I’m very proud to have achieved the rank of Brigadier General in the Army and, along with that, the opportunity to serve for so many years. I’m also proud of the many leadership and skill development schools I attended. I earned the Army’s Ranger tab. In a humorous way, I can say I’m also proud to have earned a “Master’s Degree in Parachuting.” I thoroughly enjoyed being around a group of individuals who liked jumping out of planes as much as I did.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
Don’t lose sleep over things you cannot change; apply your energy to those things you can change and influence.
What lessons have you learned in your professional life?
Everyone in the workplace has something important to offer. Everyone wants to do their best and be challenged, as well as thanked for the effort they put forth on the job. Part of being a strong leader is helping people understand the important roles they serve in the organization.
Why did you join NTMWD?
In the military I led larger and larger organizations, and enjoyed working side-by-side with great Americans accomplishing an important mission. Leading the North Texas Municipal Water District offers me another wonderful opportunity to do the same. I grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan north of Chicago, and I always loved water – whether it was swimming, fishing, or simply being around it. In my second career I wanted to do something that involved water and the environment and the Water District was a perfect fit.
What are the biggest challenges facing your organization?
Like other water utilities across the country, we’re faced with the rising costs of water treatment, pumping, repair and replacement of aging infrastructure, and new projects. We’re also experiencing the same rising costs for operating, maintaining, and increasing the capacity of our regional wastewater system. The population growth in our area isn’t slowing down, and new projects to provide the water and services for this growth cost more and more. However, at the same time these investments cause rates to go up, we’re building in efficiencies that ensure we provide the best quality of service and product at the lowest cost to our member cities and customers.
How will the North Texas Municipal Lake project impact the area?
During development and construction, the project is anticipated to bring an estimated $316 million economic boost in taxable real estate values in Fannin County. Once open, the recreational amenities such as fishing and boating could generate $166 million of annual economic activity per year, not to mention new industrial and commercial opportunities.
What other projects are scheduled?
Plans are underway to build a new regional water resource recovery facility to serve the growing population by 2023. We’re also expanding the treatment capacity at all four of our current regional wastewater treatment plants. In addition, we’re adding a biologically active filtration system to our water treatment plant in Wylie, Texas, which is one of the largest in the country. Once online in 2020, the new process will give us the ability to provide an even higher quality of drinking water for those we serve.
Are there opportunities for contractors?
Our large capital program will continue for a number of years, offering a multitude of opportunities. Right now we have approximately 80 water, 40 wastewater, and eight solid waste projects underway. In the next fiscal year, we anticipate starting more than 60 additional design and construction projects.
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