One Word Sums Up This District’s Key Challenge

A rapidly expanding population is the critical challenge for Jenna Covington and her team at the North Texas Municipal Water District

One Word Sums Up This District’s Key Challenge

From left, Adam Baugh, Leonard Water Treatment Plant supervisor II; Justin Screws, Tawakoni Water Treatment Plant supervisor; Jenna Covington, executive director/general manager; and Billy Hall, Bonham Water Treatment Plant supervisor. They are shown at the sedimentation basin at the Wylie Water Treatment Plant Complex.

“There are 55,000 people moving into our service area every year,” says Jenna Covington. “And none of them are bringing water with them.”

That sums up the continuing challenge facing the North Texas Municipal Water District. When founded in 1951 the district served 32,000 people. Today it serves 2.1 million in up to 80 communities across 2,200 square miles and 10 North Texas counties in one of the fastest-growing areas of the country.  

As executive director and general manager, Covington leads a district that provides drinking water, wastewater treatment and solid waste services. It’s a constant exercise in staying ahead of the curve. “Water and wastewater is the only critical infrastructure that must be in place before the growth occurs,” she observes.

Covington leads some 850 team members, including those who operate and maintain:

  • Seven drinking water treatment plants (combined capacity 946 mgd), nearly 700 miles of water transmission pipelines, 20 major raw and treated water pump stations, and six major water supply sources.
  • Thirteen wastewater treatment plants and 23 lift stations that convey and treat 163 mgd.
  • Three solid waste transfer stations and a regional disposal facility accepting about 1 million tons of waste each year.

Drawn to water

Covington grew up in West Texas and from early school years excelled in math. During summers and school breaks, she worked in the oilfields with her father, a land surveyor. After high school she enrolled in a five-year master’s degree program in environmental engineering at Texas Tech.

“As I got into the course work and had internships in the field of water, I developed a passion for working in water,” she recalls. “My entire career has been dedicated to working in the water industry, and it has been wonderfully rewarding to provide life-sustaining services to the communities I’ve helped serve.”

After college in 2000, Covington joined the consulting firm CH2M Hill (now Jacobs), assisting water utilities across North Texas. She started as a staff engineer and advanced into roles including project manager, operations lead and vice president. In 2015 she became assistant deputy for wastewater at the North Texas district; she took her current position in May 2021.   

She credits “informal mentors” with helping in her life and career: “I was fortunate to have a father who taught me that you can find your work enjoyable and rewarding, and a mother who stepped into leadership roles in any organization where she participated.

“In my years as a young professional, colleagues taught me how to engage with operators who ultimately make the treatment processes I was designing work. Others showed me how to develop project execution plans, lead people, and improve my communication skills. I really enjoy learning from people who are experts in their domains.”

Learning to lead

Covington credits her six years overseeing wastewater operations for helping build her leadership skills. “While supporting the district as a consultant I knew we had a great group of people and a tremendous mission,” she says.

“Once on staff my appreciation grew. Our people have pride in the work they do to fulfill our mission and provide essential services 24/7/365. Early in my tenure, I spent a lot of time talking to people throughout the organization to understand our challenges and determine where I believed we should move forward.”

Key focus areas included workforce development and training, maintenance, and asset management: “By taking a team-based approach, getting the right folks plugged in, and taking small steps in the right direction, we were able to make remarkable progress. One of our team’s greatest strengths is willingness to consider new ways of doing things.

“Another is their work ethic, their ‘git ’er done’ philosophy. They look to provide reliable service in the face of any challenge. They demonstrate ingenuity and creative thinking. They look out for one another. They are good-hearted, service-minded people.” Her close collaborators include:

  • Water plant supervisors Justin Screws, Billy Hall, Adam Baugh and Skylar Holley
  • Wastewater plant supervisors Daniel Spradlin, Jason Pittsinger and Jeremy Thompson
  • Baron Snelgrove, David Earls, Michael Brogdon, and Jason Fisher
  • Wastewater conveyance supervisor Marty Luke

To Covington, leadership starts with building a work environment where people freely contribute a diverse combination of thoughts, skills, perspectives and personalities for the good of the organization. “For people to follow they need to trust that you’re looking out for their best interests,” she notes. “One of my strengths is relying on the people around me. I’m thankful to work with a fantastic team that has bought into our vision, mission, goals and values.”

Dealing with growth

A cohesive team is essential to meeting the district’s challenge of serving a fast-growing population. On top of day-to-day operation of treatment plants, pump stations and pipelines, there’s a continuous need for long-range planning.

“We recently evaluated potential raw-water supply sources to serve the area through 2080,” Covington says. A key source is the newly developed Bois d’Arc Lake, the first reservoir built in Texas in more 30 years. It covers 16,641 acres and is named after the bois d’arc tree, a symbol of the region.

“We completed construction in fall 2022, and the associated Leonard WTP went online in March of this year,” says Covington. First-phase plant capacity is 70 mgd. A design is already in place to double that amount in the next few years; by 2036 the plant will be able to supply 280 mgd. 

Rapid growth is a challenge not just for engineering and construction teams but for facility operators. Covington observes, “Our people must be highly skilled to operate facilities that often run near their rated capacity until new facilities can be brought online. And we must be able to operate new facilities at significant flows right from the start. For example, a few months after we started up our Leonard treatment plant, it was running at around 60 mgd.”

Building the team

All this requires recruiting and retaining highly qualified operators amid a wave of retirements and a chronic shortage of new entrants to the profession. “We’re thankful for a board of directors that appreciates the work of our employees and demonstrates that by offering strong compensation and a competitive benefits package,” says Covington.

“Building a talented, competent and committed team is a strategic goal, and we accomplish that through mechanisms such as recruiting from trade schools and attracting people into the water sector. With the growth we’re experiencing, we regularly bring on new facilities and the people we need to operate and maintain them. Over the past several years we’ve made significant strides in launching new programs to support the growth and development of our team members.”

One such program consists of certified continuing education courses led by district staff and offered to employees of the district and of communities the district serves: “This enables members of our staff to become trainers and allows us to tailor the material for our organization.”

An initiative just beginning is a competency development program for operators that clearly defines the knowledge, skills and abilities they must master to qualify for promotion to the next level.

In a successful Waterworks program, no longer in operation, the district partnered with a community college to create two training paths toward Class D (starter level) water or wastewater operator licenses. After course work participants could apply for internships.

“We had 57 students complete the course work, 15 of them attained their Class D license (eight of them interned here) and we hired three of them full time,” says Covington. “The state grant that funded the program has been discontinued, but we’re looking for other innovative ways to achieve similar results in the future.”

Another avenue for team development is the district’s Centrifugal Force Operations Challenge team, which in 2023 at the Texas Water Conference became the first ever to record the top scores in all five events. In 2022 the team placed second in Division 1 in the national Operations Challenge at WFTEC. Team members were:

  • Zachary Jackson, team captain, operations, training and development manager
  • Jeremy Thompson, coach, South Mesquite Creek treatment plant supervisor
  • Caeleb Butler, South Mesquite, lead operator, liquids
  • Joshua Deaver, South Mesquite, lead operator, solids
  • Chris Legg, South Mesquite, operator
  • Mauriece Keys, Sister Grove treatment plant, lead operator

“The Operations Challenge team members have grown as individuals and have been a great influence on those around them in their desire to learn skills that are applicable to our work,” says Covington.

Promoting stewardship

As the district and the entire region face water shortages, Covington considers it essential for residents to conserve water. “The supplies we’re looking at today are farther away and more costly,” she says. “Conservation is a key aspect of our water-supply planning. It will help stretch our supplies, but given the growth projections for our service area, additional supplies will be necessary. 

“We spend a lot of time and energy, and will continue to do so, educating people about how to use water wisely. We provide information on how to efficiently water their yards. We also go into public schools to teach fourth and fifth graders how to be good stewards of our resources. There is no greater influence on adults in the household than a fourth or fifth grader putting the pressure on them.”

As for her own future, Covington looks to embody the district’s vision statement: Regional service through unity: meeting our region’s needs today and tomorrow.

“I will lead in that direction by acting as a collaborative leader who brings people together to provide excellent services. The services we provide are essential to the high standard of living we’ve become accustomed to. Our staff, board of directors, customers and partners will work together to provide dependable, high-quality services to the more than 2 million residents we serve today, and to future generations.”


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.