Dan Buhman became general manager of the Tarrant Regional Water District just as news broke that his predecessor and another water district employee had been set to receive potentially improper payments in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. He hadn’t yet unpacked or hung pictures in his office July 1 before sitting down with Fort Worth Report journalist Jessica Priest.
Buhman didn’t have to travel far. He previously served as the water district’s deputy general manager, overseeing its information technology, engineering and environmental departments. In this role, he also liaised with the city of Dallas on the Integrated Pipeline Project. That project consists of 150 miles of pipeline, three new lake pump stations, and three new booster pump stations delivering up to 350 million gallons per day of raw water to North Central Texas.
The Tarrant Regional Water district hired Buhman nearly eight years ago. He previously ran a consulting firm called Buhman Associates. The water district was one of its clients. In 2013, Buhman Associates helped develop its 50-year water supply plan. Originally from Southern California, he earned his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Brigham Young University and a master’s degree in river mechanics, hydraulics and water resources from Colorado State University. He is on the Texas Water Conservation District’s board of directors and involved in other water policy groups. Below is an excerpt from Buhman’s conversation with Priest. The conversation was mostly about his predecessor, Jim Oliver, and a $1.2 billion project to reroute a section of the Trinity River north of downtown and modify a park on the city’s east side to better manage floods. Some think this project will create more economic prosperity for Fort Worth. Buhman refers to it as the Central City Project. It is also known as the Central City Flood Control Project, Panther Island, Trinity River Vision and Trinity Uptown. Please note this conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. What, if anything, are you going to do differently as general manager?
Dan Buhman: I’m really focused on looking forward, and I’m very optimistic about our future. I’d say our board has sent some clear messages that they want to be open and transparent. They want me to be out in the community and be communicating as much as possible with our entire community … I’ve already spent a lot of time meeting with community leaders and elected officials and, you know, am just willing and able to meet with anybody who wants to understand what we do better.
Q. What have you heard from the community that they want to see from the water district?
Buhman: They want to see the Central City Project completed. They want to see us have a reliable water supply. They want the water district to be the best it can be, and so that support has been basically universal.
Q. How would you respond to people who didn’t like the water district’s past leadership, didn’t like Mr. Oliver, saying, “Well, you’ve trained x many years under him, you’re just going to be another Mr. Oliver?”
Buhman: Give me a chance. I’m my own person. I certainly see how much good the water district has done and can do, and my goal is to serve this community, to do the best I can to make sure people have reliable water supply, flood protection and recreation.
Q. It seems like the pace at which Panther Island is proceeding has garnered some public skepticism of the water district. How do you plan to turn that around?
Buhman: My first step is to get my team together, to get a full understanding of the situation and work with my board of directors and understand their view of the situation … And obviously, that is one part of what we do, right? And so my eyes are definitely on the ball because if we don’t have an adequate water supply, this community will not thrive, so I’ve got to make sure that happens. Do I need to complete, do we need to complete the Central City project? Without a doubt, and I am totally focused on making sure that becomes reality. And so I’m optimistic. I think what we’re seeing is a lot of people coming together and saying, “We want to see that project completed. We believe it can be done. Let’s do it together.” So yeah, I’m just looking forward to the future.
Q. This project has gone years without federal funding. How do you plan to secure federal funding?
Buhman: I’m really focused on the partnership. We have these great partners in the city of Fort Worth, the Army Corps of Engineers, the county, TxDOT, Streams and Valleys, and the public. If we can send a very clear message to our federal partners that we’re totally behind this project, that this community wants it to happen and is supportive of it, I think that will send a great message to Washington, D.C.
Q. What happens if this year it’s not part of the Army Corps of Engineers’ budget and next year it’s not part of the budget? Where does the project go from there?
Buhman: I don’t want to speculate at this point just because I’m still getting my feet under me and trying to understand all the nuances of it, but yeah, we’ll certainly cross that bridge when it comes.
Q. What’s the immediate risk to people in Fort Worth if the flood control portion of the project (which the federal government funds and does by digging the channel/diverting the river) doesn’t happen?
Buhman: The levees you see out there are the result of massive flooding. The Army Corps of Engineers came in in the 40s 50s 60s and with community support said, “Hey, let’s fix this,” and so they built the levees. And that was federal dollars. And with community support, the water district became the local sponsor, which means we own it, we operate it, we maintain it. Fort Worth was 320,000 people at the time. I don’t know the exact number, but I think that is the number I’ve heard. Today, we are, what, 950,000 people? I think that was the most recent number I heard. We’re now the 12th largest city in the nation. That growth means that the flood control system that was adequate in the 1950s is not adequate today.
Q. So are they at risk of failing any day now?
Buhman: It’s not that the levees are failing; it’s that if we had the same storm today as occurred in the 50s, that same storm that the levees were designed to hold, would overwhelm the system today. And so yeah, we need to enhance that flood control system. I mean the Army Corps of Engineers has always said, “Yes, we need to enhance that flood control system. Let’s get together with these local sponsors and make that happen.” So yeah, the project’s absolutely necessary for flood control, and I would say what it is is it’s flood control done right. It’s flood control in a way that addresses the flood control issues, but also connects people to the river. It creates economic development. It’s not an economic development project, but it enables that. It makes it possible. It connects people to the river. So, it’s the best way to do flood control for this community.
Q. Are there other communities that have done similar projects that Fort Worth could learn from?
Buhman: Absolutely. And I couldn’t tell you all of them, but I know, for example, San Antonio has a similar system. The city of Dallas is working right now with the Army Corps of Engineers on a similar system. They’re not all exactly the same, but there are similarities.
Q. Going back to the funding question, you don’t have a plan for if the water district doesn’t get funding for the project again or if y’all have any more hurdles? I know one of the most recent hurdles was that the Army Corps of Engineers wanted the district to do a study and the board said, “No, we’ve already done our own study. We don’t think we need to do another study.”
Buhman: I think there are definitely alternative plans. I think our best solution at this point without a doubt is that the federal government funds that project, and they have shown a commitment to fund that project almost in the tune of $100 million so far, so clearly they have expressed a commitment. You know, the Army Corps of Engineers is solidly behind it. But yeah, we want to turn that into reality.
Q. Should current water district employees be worried about their positions being cut or the structure of the agency changing?
Buhman: There’s always change in every organization when there’s new leadership. But, you know, I’ve consistently said to the employees, “Results are what matters.” And if you look at the results of our system, we have enough water to supply us for many more decades. That’s because of the work they do. And so, I’ve told all of them that we’re going to build on our past successes…
Q. JD Granger, son of Congresswoman Kay Granger, is a name people know as being associated with the Panther Island project. Is he out now that you’re in?
Buhman: As I said earlier, it’s day one on the job, and I’ve got a lot that I’ve got to figure out. I’ve got to understand the team the best I can. I have to work with the board of directors and work with the community, so I’m not focused on any single employee at this point…
Q. And what are some projects that the district is working on that you’re excited about that you think the public should be aware of?
Buhman: We’re poised to build another wetland. … Right now, we have a 2,000-acre wetland.
Q. Does the existing wetland have a formal name?
Buhman: Yeah, it’s called the George Shannon Wetlands Facility. And that’s down near Richland-Chambers Reservoir. And boy, if you ever get a chance to get down there, it is beautiful, let me tell you, and there’s a bird sanctuary …
This new wetland facility is essentially the same idea. You reuse water that’s been used once. It goes down the river, is put into these wetlands that clean it up and is put back in the reservoir and pumped back up here. I mean, it’s just a great project. And we’re always looking for other ideas on how to extend our water supply.
Q. Where will it be located?
Buhman: Just west of Cedar Creek Reservoir.
To close, Buhman said the district and the Trinity River Authority are also designing a well to store treated water that the district could pull from. He referred to this as aquifer storage and recovery. They’ve determined there will be one well but haven’t decided what it’s capacity will be.
The Tarrant Regional Water District has a three-pronged mission: provide water, flood control and recreational opportunities. It is a special purpose taxing district established by the Texas Legislature many decades ago. It most recently assessed a property tax of 2.87 cents per $100 valuation. Click here to see if you’re within its taxing boundaries. The water district says the money it acquires through taxes is used for flood control and levee maintenance. Proceeds from selling water to dozens of North Texas cities in 11 counties along with its oil and gas leases fund its other activities.
Jessica Priest is an investigative journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.