What's Dallas Water Utilities Director Jody Puckett Most Concerned About? Let's Find Out.

Categories: City Hall
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Late yesterday I got a call back from Dallas Water Utilities Director Jody Puckett, for whom I'd left a message about Irving and the North Texas Municipal Water District's need to buy water from the city. We set up a time to chat this morning, and just got through visiting for a little while about several topics -- like, say, Sandy Greyson's concern about selling water to customers to the north consumed with the goal of "unfettered growth," and Scott Griggs's worry that Dallas, which has prepared well for a drought, will become "a backstop for all our surrounding municipalities." So, jump for our little Q&A. Bring a life jacket.

Are you concerned that the longer this drought goes on -- and it looks like it's here to stay, if not intensity, for the foreseeable future -- we're going to become, as Scott Griggs put it a couple of weeks ago, the backstop for surrounding cities that did not prepare as well as Dallas? Are you worried they're going to rely on us more and more?

I don't know about worried. As a steward of trhe state's water, which is what we are, we have this sense of responsibility to serve, and just because someone's short on water doesn't mean thay haven't done all they can do to plan. I don't want to throw anyone under the bus or, in this case, the boat, which isn't floating anyway, but the situation the North Texas district is facing with an invasive species [Zebra mussels], no one planned for that, just like we didn't plan for an MTBE [methyl tertiary-butyl ethers] pill in Lake Tawakoni years ago. We had to shut the lake down, and that temporarily pulled the supply out of the inventory, and when that happens, that's why we have the drought management plan.

The challenge I think for us is, as systems are been built over time, they've been built in their own bubble, for lack of a better term. So when someone gets into trouble, we have to ask: Is there any way to help them?  And the reliance on one reservoir is a bit of a challenge.

You mean, the NTMWD with Lavon, or ...

Irving is a better one. We treat their [Lake] Chapman water for them, and it's valuable for us and the region they bring that water in. That's a good thing. The fact that over the last six, eight years that lake has yo-yo'd, for lack of a better term -- it was down 70 percent a few years ago, then it rained -- that's a cycle of drought. But you still have a long-term challenge to be sustainable. Three entities have rights in that lake: Sulphur Springs, North Texas, Irving. And the Upper Trinity Regional Water District gets water via a contract with Sulphur Springs, and they're our customer too. If that supply runs out, we have that challenge as well. How you balance that and then how you react to it, our plan wasn't designed to react to those issues. We're trying to work that through.

How?

Besides pray?

Well, sure, there's that. But Lavon, for instance, has been emptying at a dizzying rate. And certainly, one of the reasons for going to watering restrictions at long last on December 12 stems from the fact the NTMWD came to the city before then and said: Help.

That kink added to our decision process. Technically the way the process works is I make a recommendation to the manager, and either she agrees or not. We at Dallas Water Utilities have a three-pronged issue: The supply status, the fact I am going to have a plant restriction in the summer, and the potential sale of water. And the other thing is the fact we serve 26 other cities, plus ourselves. I felt like it was time to move forward even though it's not a big watering season. Our demands are dropping, as they should this time of the year, and it's rained a little.

If I have a worry, and the city manager says I worry enough for everybody, it's if we're approaching a new drought of record. That's a place none of us have been in the water business, and if I have a worry, that's my worry. How do we deal with that over the next months and years?

You guys just put out an RFQ for a long-term water plan, through 2070 -- again, a sign that Dallas has planned ahead since the historic drought of the mid-1950s. Reading that, it seems that one of the city's concerns in the future, near and long-term, will involve reconciling to whom we sell and for how much.

There are physical limitations. There's only so much water we can sell. From our planning standpoint it's all about risk. If I wanted to sell all my water to 'em, I couldn't. And regarding the North Texas district issue, they're working on capital projects to replace that water over the next three years. My last conversation with them was in late October, and my understanding is they're looking at building a direct pipeline from Texoma so they can use it like they hoped to be able to. We're also looking at a mainstem pump project in the Trinity River for the North Texas district so they can bring more water to their wetlands to move to Lavon. They use Lavon as a balancing reservoir to bring their water in and have a treatment plant in Wylie. That's over $300 million, and they have engineering under way to get that done.

As we evaluate what and how much we should charge for that water, that's what we're scratching our heads over. We have Irving and North Texas and Luminant as our main customers. Luminant has a contract to get water out ot Lake Fork, because it needs water to cool its power plants. I am motivated to sell them water because I need power to run my business. And Luminant has little to no impact, because we trade some with them on the west side of their operations. The other two aren't so simple.

The North Texas district says it hopes to get the city council to sign off on a deal by February ...

That's their time frame when they came to us in mid-October. It's not adversarial, let me make that clear. What does it mean to us? I'm going to take 30 to 50 million gallons a day out of my inventory. What's the fiscal impact? I might have planned to sell it to somebody else, like my customers. But it's all part of the math of it. And we need to be reasonable.

Yesterday in the comments a reader pointed out that raising water rates for large commercial users might do more to increase conservation than forcing restrictions solely on residential users.

Well, all the restrictions currently apply to outdoor water use. We have not approached companies like Texas Instruments or Mary Kay or Nestle or Niagra about reducing their production. Coca-Cola and a lot of companies already have incentives to use less water anyway because it improves profitability. Our contingency plans don't target industrial and commercial use. They target discretionary use, which is outdoor water. In the event we get to Stage Four restrictions, let's say, do we ask companies to reduce production? That's a scary place to be. We're not there. But all the drought plans that you have are for our outdoor discretionary uses, and one of our outreaches will be golf courses and large companies that set their sprinklers and forget about them. There's still a lot of low-hanging fruit out there.

Back to another comment: Are we underwriting sprawl?

I don't know any one thing any one does encourages urban sprawl. I grew up here. I don't see what has discouraged it, quite frankly. But what we're talking about in terms of volume in terms of the North Texas district is probably 20 percent of their demand, maybe. I don't know if I have that exactly right, but they asked for 60 million gallons per day, and they may sell upwards of 350 MGD, 400 MGD a day. Even if they bring their demands down substantially, we'll help them get over their hump, but we won't be able to serve their communities.

It's more making sure their pump intakes stay covered in water so they can get these other capital improvements done. I don't know if I agree with that comment [about underwriting sprawl]. It does appear to me the same growth and development that has occured in Collin and Denton counties looks like what happened in the '50s, when we had that historic drought and a high-growth rate. It may be history repeating itself, but I'm not a historian. I'm an engineer. The parallels might be interesting to explore.
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King Neece
King Neece

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Larry
Larry

AND, MGD a day is redundant.

Larry
Larry

For cryin out loud, why do we wait until the lakes are 70% down to impose water restrictions??

What short-sighted retards, citizens and officials all.

Pennywhistle
Pennywhistle

Previous Dallas councils in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s paved the way for much of its growth by providing good infrastructure and plenty of water.  If Dallas is going to continue to grow, it is imperative that the water situation is figured out.  Dallas used to be a very clean city with good streets, water, storm water, waste water, and fresh plentiful fresh water sources.  In every one of those areas we've fallen behind. 

It's also an irony that Dallas may be the backstop for many suburban cities that have not planned ahead, but East Texans (many whose offspring come to the region for jobs) will not backstop the North Texas area.

Judd D. Bradbury
Judd D. Bradbury

As part of the Commission on Productivity & Innovation I previously pressed Jody on the different rate structures. At the time the interest was one of advocacy for the citizens of Dallas. Jody provided an understanding that there is some type of formula provided by the state for charging other municipalities for water. I was not in favor of the approach at the time and I don't think it is a valid approach now. The people of Dallas paid to develop the water resources. You are all hearing now that the water belong to the state. Welcome to the new world of water politics.

It would not be fair to think of Jody as a defender of the approach. She might even be pleased in the long run if a group of citizens raised a strong challenge to the approach. It would also be wrong to view Jody as anything other than the most competent and progressive director at the City of Dallas. Some examples of this would include leadership on the integrated ERP billing system and the automatic water meter reading project.

Wylie H.
Wylie H.

Mr. Bradbury,

Thanks for your perspective on Ms. Puckett-- perhaps my implied condemnation of her was unfair.

With respect to the issue of water pricing, I'd be interested to know what role the state plays.  The other day, for example, I reviewed a copy of one suburban jurisdiction's water policy.  It actually stated in writing that they attempted to maximize their use of Dallas Water Utilities water versus that of the North Texas Municipal Water District because the Dallas water was CHEAPER.

I also stumbled upon what appeared to be a master agreement that Mary Suhm signed on behalf of the City of Dallas with a large number of suburban jurisdictions.  The implication of the accompanying presentation was that the negotiated price was set as the result of negotiation, rather than any sort of State mandated number.

This is all quite interesting.... the dollars and policy issues at play here are huge: a business with over $4 billion in assets and roughly $500 million in annual revenues.

Wylie H.
Wylie H.

[Wilonsky:  Are you concerned that the longer this drought goes on -- and it looks like it's here to stay, if not intensity, for the foreseeable future -- we're going to become, as Scott Griggs put it a couple of weeks ago, the backstop for surrounding cities that did not prepare as well as Dallas? Are you worried they're going to rely on us more and more?

Puckett:  I don't know about worried. As a steward of the state's water, which is what we are, we have this sense of responsibility to serve, and just because someone's short on water doesn't mean that they haven't done all they can do to plan.]

Errr.... okay, but they simply haven't.  Just to reiterate, the City of Dallas, via Dallas Water Utilities, is one of the largest water providers to North Texas.  Indeed, residents within the City of Dallas appear to comprise less than 1/2 the customer base.

Bizarrely, however, there is no consistency of water pricing among these various jurisdictions.  What that means is that people using the same amount of City of Dallas water pay different rates, depending on the jurisdiction in which they live.

Now, focusing on water conservation, if we take a look at a moderately heavy residential user (in other words, someone likely to be able to conserve at least SOME amount of water)... that residential unit may be using between 15 and 20,000 gallons per month.

So, in that usage range, what are the rates for City of Dallas water?

Well, here's a sample (per 1,000 gallons) of residential customer rates for identical Dallas water above 15,000 gallons:

Lancaster (senior) - $1.74Addison (commercial) - $2.28Seagoville (commercial and residential) - $2.75CITY OF DALLAS (commercial) - $2.85 DeSoto (senior) - $3.00Lancaster (commercial and residential) - $3.10 Grand Prairie (residential) - $3.16Grand Prairie (commercial) - $3.18Lewisville (commercial and residential) - $3.30Glenn Heights (commercial and residential) - $3.51Farmers Branch (commercial and residential) - $3.57Carrollton (commercial and residential) - $3.58DFW Airport (commercial) - $3.60DeSoto (commercial and residential) - $3.80Irving (commercial and residential) - $3.95Duncanville (commercial) - $4.07Duncanville (residential) - $4.47Addison (residential) - $4.57Flower Mound (commercial and residential) - $4.62

So... what would the same residential customer who happens to live in the City of Dallas (which owns and operates Dallas Water Utilities) pay for the exact same product?

Get this:  CITY OF DALLAS (residential) - $6.25!!!

Can someone PLEASE ask Puckett and or Suhm what kind of crazy train they're running?  Why do people living in the City of Dallas have to worry about how to water their plants, when, at the very same time, Dallas Water Utilities is providing massive amounts of cheap water to large volume suburban residential and commercial customers?

Something's not right here. If Dallas Water Utilities is truly serious about conservation, they should figure out how to ensure that suburban customers pay at least as much as City of Dallas customers for the exact same water. This would be far more effective than parading their stupid mascot, "Dew," around.

DallasDrilling
DallasDrilling

She still hasn't answered all of the concerns that have been raised. She gets to keep her job another week.

Wylie H.
Wylie H.

[We have not approached companies like Texas Instruments or Mary Kay or Nestle or Niagra about reducing their production. Coca-Cola and a lot of companies already have incentives to use less water anyway because it improves profitability. Our contingency plans don't target industrial and commercial use. They target discretionary use, which is outdoor water. In the event we get to Stage Four restrictions, let's say, do we ask companies to reduce production? That's a scary place to be.]

That's a nice redirect which sidesteps the point entirely.  No one is talking about asking companies to reduce production.... the issue, quite simply, is: why does Dallas Water Utilities offer over a 30% DISCOUNT to large commercial water users (including those purchasing treated water for fracking operations)? Such a large discount serves to encourage waste.

If the discount were to be reduced, commercial and industrial use would go down as some companies would modify their usage--- that's Economics 101.  Why won't the City even put that on the table for consideration?

Bzig
Bzig

I'm right there with you and the big question they skirted was the huge amounts of water used for Fracking. I can't water my petunias but hey can ruin millions of gallons of water the reap enormous profits.I don't begrudge a company being profitable if they are good corporate citizens. Southlake seems to have set the standards for them fairly rigid and they have all pulled up stakes because they don't want to play if there's rules.

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