January 2022 Vol. 77 No. 1


Florida Waters, Tennessee Dams Led 2021 MVP Kurz to Unlikely Career

By Jeff Awalt, Executive Editor

There are some people who seem to know exactly where their future and their career will take them from the earliest age. And that certainly seemed to be the case with George Kurz, who was named 2021 Most Valuable Professional of the sewer/water industry by the Underground Construction Technology Association and Underground Construction. 

George Kurtz

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated with water,” said Kurz, chuckling at the thought of his younger self. “My earliest memories as a child were of just plain water, as silly and basic as that sounds. It’s just always been there.” 

Kurz’s near-obsession with water eventually manifested itself during his teens as a keen interest in dams, so it seemed almost like providence when his family moved from Florida to Tennessee during his senior year of high school. 

“I thought I was in dam — that’s D-A-M — heaven,” Kurz said, musing over those weekends when he and his parents would venture from their new home in Athens and explore the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) array of dams – many of them lesser-known and tucked away in the hills of eastern Tennessee. 

“And I thought,” he said, “this is perfect. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.” 

An inconvenient truth 

The son of an electrical engineer and maternal grandson of a mechanical engineer, Kurz found himself drawn to a career in civil engineering, with “grand dreams” of working on systems of dams. 

“I had enough feel for the situation by then to realize that you couldn’t just operate one dam independently. If you’re going to get effective use out of the individual dams, you had to operate them in systems,” he said. 

Once he understood that, however, it led him directly into looking at the environmental impacts of those dams he loved throughout his youth. “I began evolving to the point where I thought, ‘Yeah, I’m not so sure if maybe dams aren’t the best idea.’ ” 

And that changed everything. His college studies turned from civil to environmental and sanitary engineering, and his path became clear. There was just one small issue. 

“Now, George, tell me again how you went from dams …” His mother paused to glance up, and he was certain she was picturing those beautiful TVA structures from their weekend trips. “… then down to sewage.” 

“And I would try my best to explain,” Kurz said, still enjoying the story, “but I knew I’d kind of broken my mother’s heart.” 

Neither of them could have predicted the enormous contributions Kurz would make over the course of his career, ultimately leading to his selection as the MVP of the underground infrastructure industry for 2021. 

But it wasn’t long before a series of regulatory events would define the entirety of his career. 

The road to Chattanooga 

Kurz earned his B.S. in Civil Engineering (Environmental) at Tennessee Technological University and went to work for the State of Tennessee’s Division of Water Control in 1976. The U.S. Clean Water Act (CWA) had passed four years earlier, and the division was still figuring out how to implement its rules. 

The struggle centered around what were called 201 Plans and 208 Plans, which were targeted at upgrading treatment plants, building new ones and getting them sized correctly. Kurz was focused mainly on infiltration and inflow (I/I) work at first, struggling with huge volumes of data under “primitive circumstances” with very limited mainframe computer access in the card-reader era. 

But he shifted more towards pre-treatment programs – making industrial wastewater safe for treatment at plants – and started working closely with the city of Chattanooga. Finally, when the city’s water and sewer director was at the state offices one day, he pulled Kurz aside. 

“Look, George,” Kurz recalls him saying. “Why don’t you just come down and do this darned thing for me? That way, we’ll know we’ve got it right, and the state will have some trust in us, too.’” 

Between Kurz’s state pay and the prospect of tackling a brand-new program, it was an easy sell. He moved to Chattanooga, where he increasingly worked with the collection system and, as a result, with the head of Maintenance. 

“I have to tell you, the first time he took me out to show me an SSO (sanitary sewer overflow), I thought, ‘Gee, that’s kind of a problem,’ ” Kurz said, describing another key juncture. “I’m embarrassed to admit that it really didn’t hit me a lot at the time. But it stayed in my mind, and we tried to work more on what to do about it. And that’s really kind of the beginning of the rest of my career.” 

The final turn 

In the mid-1980s, federal regulators knew they had a problem. After a decade of attempted policy initiatives for pretreatment, I/I control and overflows, their processes weren’t working. Many problems boiled down to the simple fact that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) couldn’t effectively issue orders for compliance when they didn’t know exactly what needed to be fixed. 

Their solution was called the National Municipal Compliance Plan, which involved sending everybody with wastewater treatment facilities a thick questionnaire, so they could detail all the problems themselves and the EPA could send out the orders to fix them. 

“They dumped it down to the states, and the states dumped it down to the cities, and then my boss dumped it on my desk,” Kurz said, and the next chapter in his career unfolded before his eyes. 

“When I first got the survey, I kind of flipped through the pages and I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, we do that,’ and then the next page, ‘We do that, so that’s okay,’ ” Kurz recalled. “But then, when I sat down and actually started trying to fill it out and document it, I thought: ‘Oh, good grief, are we in trouble!’ ” 

Chattanooga’s problems were mostly around I/I, leakage and the general condition of the sewer system. He decided they needed to get started as fast as possible and try to avoid a monstrous order. 

The city coughed up about $1 million in its next budget to start with some equipment and repair contracts, a fraction of what would be needed, but a start. It was 1986, and Kurz was designing his first sewer rehab project. 

Stellar career 

Kurz continued to serve as sewer system engineer for the Interceptor Sewer System in Chattanooga until 1990, eventually managing 34 people in the sewer maintenance and industrial wastes divisions and a combined annual budget of $2.25 million. 

He also initiated the I/I monitoring and sewer rehabilitation programs and designed the first flow monitoring network of 21 permanent meters. He oversaw procurement of design for the first CSO control project at Ross’s Landing, and designed 1.5 miles of 15-, 24- and 54-inch sewer trunk lining. 

Beginning in 1991, he worked for CTA as part of the Nashville Overflow Abatement Program (OAP) as a project manager and project engineer. Kurz established the standards for hydraulic and I/I flow analysis for the OAP and performed the before-after analyses for 27 project areas, which showed an aggregate I/I reduction of 50 percent annually. 

In 2012, Kurz wrote a “Green Paper” to provoke action by the Tennessee Division of Water Resources to revise its sewer design criteria to handle I/I more effectively statewide and to become proactive for I/I reduction. The Division responded by creating a taskforce to update the design criteria, which Kurz co-chaired. He has continued to assist the Division with training on his municipal I/I & RDI/I spreadsheet. 

Above and beyond 

A strong believer in industry education, Kurz is a frequent presenter in the educational program at UCT and has also presented pre-show workshops on sewer rehabilitation strategies. He was also an early and enthusiastic supporter of the RehabZone program at UCT and still participates as an industry expert – answering questions, explaining technology and providing general information to the audience. 

Underground Construction Editor-in-Chief Robert Carpenter noted that it is not unusual to find Kurz in the RehabZone with a crowd gathered around him as he shares technical information, anecdotal stories and relevant research information. 

Kurz is also a published author, contributing articles for a variety of publications, including Underground Construction. 

“Throughout his career, George has been relentless in the pursuit of a better way to evaluate sewer systems and effectively battle I&I,” Carpenter said upon Kurz’s selection as MVP. “His work in these areas is legendary.” 

Kurz’s efforts to educate and improve sewer and water systems extends into his personal life, as well. Each year, he travels to Ecuador on a church mission to lend his engineering expertise and help build infrastructure for struggling communities. He has initiated and administered development projects for the Episcopal Diocese of Litoral in Guayaquil since 1996. 

“He truly reflects the type of individual integrity and career accomplishments that epitomize the MVP award,” Carpenter said. 

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