The New York City Department of Environmental Protection is finding itself in a unique situation these days.

With more than $11 billion in active construction contracts and another $3-plus billion in planning and design – with $14.6 billion more on the way in the form of a new 10-year Capital Plan – the DEP has become one of the most important owner-developers in the tri-state area, especially with most private sector building still frozen in place.

“Through this down economy we’ve still managed to put out a couple billion dollars worth of work or more a year,” says James Mueller, the DEP’s deputy commissioner of the Bureau of Engineering and Design. It’s diverse work, some of it’s large, some of it’s small, it covers a lot of different contractors and employs a lot of people. I think people take notice of that.”

The DEP is putting thousands of construction workers on job sites at a time when there aren’t many jobs to go around which has helped to raise its profile with an industry whose dealings with the department have been frosty, at times, in the past.

“When you’re looking at 30, 40, 50% unemployment [in the construction industry], you can’t help but consider an owner like the DEP a desired owner, maybe one of the most desired owners,” said one industry insider who represents several firms that work on DEP projects. “Has it always been that way? No. But they’re making great strides in a lot of areas and they’re keeping a lot of our [workers] busy. That goes a long way with a lot of people.”

DEP officials are aware they haven’t always had the best reputation throughout the industry. For years they were viewed as a lumbering bureaucracy that was slow to pay its bills, slower to clear change orders and often lacking in clear directions for the contractors it employed. But over the last couple of years the department, which is responsible for managing the water supply for all of New York City, has begun taking calculated steps to improve their standing with the construction industry and it appears to be working.

Over the last couple of years the DEP has spent considerable time re-evaluating its business practices and implementing several new strategies while the department’s young, new commissioner, Caswell F. Holloway, who was appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in November of last year before taking over in January 2010, has made improved relations with contractors one of his biggest priorities and has

“There was definitely a perception out there that the DEP could be difficult to work for,” says Caswell F. Holloway, who was appointed DEP Commissioner in 2009 by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “I think there’s been a lot done to improve that.”

And all the while, there has been work. And lots of it.

The mammoth capital program includes four in-the-ground projects that are being looked at by those within the department as “legacy jobs:” the $6 billion City Tunnel No. 3, which spans 60 miles at depths reaching 800 ft intended to allow, for the first time, inspection and repair of the city’s original two water conveyance tunnels, built in 1917 and 1936, respectively; the $4 Billion Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment plant expansion in Greenpoint, which will raise the capacity what is already the city’s largest wastewater treatment plant to 700 mgd during wet weather storms; the $2.8 billion Croton Water Filtration Plant, which employs more than 1,000 workers a day and will culminate in a 290-million-gallon-per-day facility built 100 ft below grade in just 51 months; and the $1.4 billion, 160,000-sq-ft  Catskill-Delaware Ultra-violet Disinfection plant, which, when completed will be 10 times the size of any similar facility previously built.

“If you take just our major projects, the amount of work that we have going on right now is much more than City Water Tunnel No. 1 and City Water Tunnel No. 2 combined,” says Holloway. The good side of that is that we’re doing a lot of work and we’re an economic driver. In an economic picture that is improving but still isn’t looking so great, you could look at the DEP as a bright spot for the simple reason that we’re doing work.”

Owner of the Year New York Construction recently sat down with Holloway and a team of his senior staff members – Mueller, Michael Borsykowsky, assistant commissioner for engineering management; Kathryn Mallon, assistant commissioner for in-house design and support; and Bernard Daly, executive construction manager on the Croton plant – to discuss the meaning of being named , as well as the DEP’s future as one of the region’s pre-eminent builders while the economy is still navigating difficult waters.