Fixin' To Solve Resiliency: Texas, Burns & McDonnell Tackle Infrastructure And Sustainability Issues


By Kevin Westerling,


A Q&A with David Kinchen, Southwest Regional Water Leader, Burns & McDonnell

Texas is sizable enough to be a large country on its own, with an economy to match, and is also proudly unique. But when it comes to water issues, the Lone Star State shares a lot in common with the rest of America: overwhelmed and vulnerable infrastructure, threats to water quality and security, and competition for financial and human resources. While the momentum of population growth, aging assets, and weather patterns suggest an escalation of these issues, we thankfully have innovation on our side in terms of technology and thought-leadership. Those who are leading the charge are Water Champions, such as David Kinchen of Burns & McDonnell.

In October 2018, Kinchen joined Burns & McDonnell in Texas — arriving with more than three decades of experience — where he endeavors to grow the firm’s engineering, construction, and design capabilities to help solve regional water and wastewater challenges for municipal and industrial clients. As the scope of the underlying issues (and that of Burns & McDonnell) are bigger than Texas, however, his insights from the following Q&A are worth a read for water professionals everywhere.

Why was Texas chosen as an area of expansion for Burns & McDonnell's water services?

The new service in Texas is part of our ongoing commitment to provide clients with quality and cost-effective solutions, including design-build, engineer-procure-construct (EPC), and other professional services that will improve lifecycle costs, reduce construction time, and lower project costs for water and wastewater infrastructure systems. 

Water is the lifeblood of Texas business. It’s more important than ever that we understand both industrial and municipal needs as well as the impact each element has on the other. A holistic approach that encompasses the needs of private industry and public, municipal users will be vital to developing successful water strategies, connecting the dots to improve water usage, increase availability of water, and extend its sustainability.

What effect has population growth had on the region?

Texas has had the nation’s largest annual population growth each year from 2010 to 2016 (U.S. Census). With population on the rise, new challenges and opportunities are presented to meet the supply and demand of water resources. Fortunately, leadership in the state of Texas has been proactively preparing for the state’s future water needs. For example, the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) recently published its updated statewide water plan, which indicated that six of the 16 planning regions could experience new drought records, which would have a critical impact on water supply and usage.

The TWDB has done a great job developing strategies to diversify water approaches, like conservation and innovative water supply and storage strategies, including desalination (seawater and brackish water), reuse for potable and industrial use, and aquifer storage and recovery (ASR). Now, it’s up to the engineering and construction industry to implement the TWDB’s recommended strategy into usable infrastructure with our public and industrial partners.

How does rapid growth impact treatment plant and pipeline infrastructure?

Given the forecast for drought conditions across the state, water supply strategies need to be implemented sooner rather than later — requiring a change in available delivery methods and the agencies which can use those methods. The conventional track of water delivery (design-bid-build and competitive sealed proposals) slows down the ability to put needed infrastructure in place. We, as an industry, have one of the most significant obligations to design and construct new water infrastructure in the country; however, our current state legislation limits communities that need it most. For example, mid-tier communities with populations of less than 100,000 — which represent more than 50 percent of the state’s population and 97 percent of all communities — are not able to utilize collaborative delivery approaches like design-build and EPC for water projects, preventing them from saving both time and money when developing water infrastructure.

Most other market sectors in the state use some form of collaborative delivery, regardless of the population, and those communities are reaping the benefits as these delivery approaches eliminate communication problems between designers and contractors and allow for best practices to be incorporated across the board. As the need for water infrastructure continues, it will be imperative that all public entities are able to take advantage of collaborative delivery approaches in addition to conventional delivery methods.

Has water scarcity affected industrial operations to the point of disruptive change? Which industries are most challenged, and how are companies adapting?

Water scarcity impacts industries across the board. From oil and gas to manufacturing and power generation firms, companies need water to operate. Not only do they need water, but some industries produce significant amounts of water, through various industrial processes, that are discharged at the surface and lost to evaporation. Utilizing reuse and water reclamation strategies will be key to minimizing the impacts of water scarcity.

For example, along the Texas coast, aging water infrastructure and the need for improvements to meet regulatory requirements are generating interest around upgraded water and wastewater systems. In the same region of the state, many industries are subject to potential curtailments as water supplies from municipalities are constrained. In these situations, curtailments could have a huge impact on production and, consequently, overall business objectives and the economy. Upgrading aging facilities with new, modern technology and utilizing reuse and/or desalination to further supplement water supply could eliminate vulnerability to private industry as well as solve regulatory issues facing wastewater utilities.

We have witnessed the industry taking the lead in some areas of the state, including building partnerships between public agencies and municipalities in West Texas that have been working to capture wastewater that can be used for industrial use. It’s the implementation of innovative approaches like this that has the potential to help Texas maintain its economic leadership.  

The costs associated with new infrastructure will always be a concern. How can alternative funding or delivery methods help?

Public-private partnerships (P3s) continue to offer a sustainable business model in many infrastructure sectors, including transportation, social, higher education, and more. However, the water industry has historically been known as a slow adopter of the P3 method. Why, we may ask? Two myths continue to lead to hesitation of P3 use in water.

Myth of privatization — In some instances, communities believe P3 models lead to privatization. At the far end of the spectrum, P3 can be privatization. However, more often, P3 is a strategic outsourcing tool. P3 models should be evaluated with the right basis of information and compared with traditional financing and delivery models to determine which method best meets the needs of the public.

Myth of costs — Unfortunately, municipalities have been misinformed and are making decisions on initial investment costs instead of taking a deeper dive into the long-term lifecycle costs. For the right projects, P3 solutions can create a better long-term return on investment for municipalities and key stakeholders due to reduced lifecycle costs, which translate into lower rates for ratepayers.

Ultimately, projects are funded by the ratepayer and evaluating alternatives to reduce the overall impact to the ratepayer should always be the goal. While P3 is not the answer for every project, it is a valuable tool that should be considered in the water sector as we continue to witness benefits in other markets.

Can collaborative project delivery help to foster innovation? If so, how?

Yes, absolutely. I am a big proponent of collaborative project delivery (CPD) models. Evaluating projects to understand which tools offer the best approach is the key to success.

When incorporating innovative approaches, CPD is one of the many options owners have in their toolkit. To determine which tool leads to the highest probability of project success, it’s critical to evaluate project drivers like environmental conditions, regulatory factors (current and emerging), economic factors, and technology selections to understand which tool offers the best approach to a set of circumstances.

From the management team to designers, builders, operations, and IT professionals, CPD brings multiple stakeholders to the table. Each participant brings a unique perspective and multiple data points, creating a holistic vision for the decision-makers. History has shown that the best ideas come through collective interaction, and CPD methods like design-build provide the highest level of collaboration.

Are most existing systems in Texas resilient to extreme weather? What steps are being taken to harden systems?

As we witnessed when Hurricane Harvey hit the shores of Texas, our communities were inundated with stormwater, resulting in stressed watershed and drainage systems and causing extreme flooding. We saw the same situation when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana. In each situation, we witnessed more than just property damage. Lives were lost, families were uprooted, and access to water, electricity, medical care, food, and more was limited.

It’s situations like these that point to the need for a comprehensive response system that minimizes risks to our communities. Lawmakers and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott have made flood protection a priority and are dedicating resources to address our vulnerabilities. Now it’s up to industry leaders and state agencies to take the initiatives from planning mode to execution, hardening our front line and protecting Texans.

In addition to restoring communities from past events, we also have great capabilities like modeling and predictive analytics that allow us to account for population growth and flood zones for future catastrophic events as Mother Nature continues to be unpredictable. Continuing the development of an integrated approach with smart technologies, simulation testing, and forward-thinking leadership can help detect issues before our systems are put to the test in real life, and robust emergency response plans can be developed in advance to minimize the impact after the fact. These same technologies can also be used to develop solutions in those more vulnerable areas so that investments in flood control and management can be deployed to the right areas to yield the best results.

What role does the government play in securing safe and abundant water?

Government will continue to play a huge role in securing sustainable and reliable water systems. Due to the diversity of the state’s water supply and usage, segregated strategies sell us short. Government has a unique role in developing a comprehensive strategy utilizing a statewide perspective, which is helpful in developing holistic approaches. The TWDB plan does this well and the government is in position to create more diverse legislation, allowing for both large and small municipalities to take advantage of innovative water strategies on a more regional basis, and to employ multiple delivery methods that can help solve challenges for the 21st century and beyond.