The San Francisco Public Utility Commission’s $4.6-billion regional water-system improvement program is racing against the clock as the construction team retrofits facilities to withstand a potential earthquake that, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, could come at any time.

Set for completion by December 2015, the Water System Improvement Program (WSIP) is a mammoth undertaking, consisting of 86 separate water-supply and storage projects spanning counties in northern and central California. Construction is well under way on some of the projects; others won’t break ground until 2011.

Julie Labonte, the commission’s WSIP program director, says that while some of the projects have individual challenges, the most difficult aspect of the entire enterprise is juggling schedules, teams and logistics. “A lot of the challenges we’ve had thus far have been non-technical in nature,” she says.

The USGS predicts that there is a 63% chance of a major earthquake occurring some time in the next 30 years. Officials say the storied Hetch Hetchy water system, which supplies water to residents of San Francisco and its outlying suburbs and municipalities, is vulnerable to a major seismic event because its facilities and pipelines cross and interconnect over three major fault lines: San Andreas, Calaveras and Hayward. USGS scientists say the Hayward fault in particular is potentially deadly, a time bomb ready to detonate at any time. And when the fault shifts, the quake is likely to be a major one, at a magnitude of 6.8 to 7.0 on the Richter scale, USGS studies show. The last major quake involving the Hayward fault occurred in 1868.

A major earthquake could potentially cut off Bay Area residents for as long as two months from the source of 85% of their water supply—the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, located about 167 miles north of San Francisco in Yosemite, Calif., Labonte says. “This is first and foremost a seismic upgrade project,” she says, but it is also “a race against time.”

The utilities commission is retrofitting two water treatment plants and more than 280 miles of pipeline, as well as adding three new tunnels, including a five-mile underwater tunnel in the San Francisco Bay. The extra tunneling and pipelines will create redundancy in a system that currently lacks it, Labonte says. “There are some areas of our system that have a single conduit,” she says. “It’s very important that we add additional parallel conduits or interconnections to allow us to do planned maintenance and repairs as well as to respond to unplanned emergencies.” So far, construction crews have completed 42 of the 86 projects, mostly small-bore, for nearly $363 million. As of late August, 23 projects valued at more than $2 billion were under construction. By the end of the year, the commission will break ground on four more projects worth a total of $256 million.

Before undertaking the ambitious upgrade, the commission took steps to get its house in order, says Harlan Kelly, assistant general manager for infrastructure.To make the project more attractive to potential participants, the commission restructured itself and streamlined its bidding and contracting practices.

Construction management firms working on the project say the commission’s meticulous planning during the preconstruction phase has enabled the program to move smoothly into construction. A team led by agency staff and managers from Pasadena, Calif.-based Parsons Corp., which provided program management support, developed a plan for how construction management would proceed and implemented more-efficient business processes and procedures.

Jess Yoder, Parsons senior vice president and WSIP program adviser, says, “[The commission] recognized how important it was to go through that defined process before construction began, as opposed to trying to make it up as [it went].”

Los Angeles-based AECOM Technology Corp. is overseeing the program’s array of construction management firms. WSIP currently has five regional CM teams and eventually could have as many as six individual teams for larger and more complex projects. “Something like this has to be executed in a consistent and formal way and has to be very organized,” says John Kinneen, AECOM vice president of water and program CM adviser. “You have to look for trouble, find it quickly and stamp it out quickly.”

Identifying potential “rocks in the road” has been easier with the use of partnering, says Harvey Elwin, WSIP’s construction deputy director. Depending on the size of the individual project, the program calls for either informal or formal partnering with industry-recognized facilitators. “I can say without any doubt that [partnering] has contributed significantly to the construction program’s moving ahead,” Elwin says.

Environmental lawsuits are a major potential risk but have so far been a non-issue, Labonte says. “It is unheard of for a program of this size in California not to have been legally challenged once,” she says. “It shows how much we’ve gone out of our way to work with the environmental community. Very early on, we made the decision to go beyond what was mandated” by local and federal regulations. Overall, the commission is spending more than $250 million on environmental initiatives, which include building miles of fencing to keep endangered or environmentally sensitive species, such as the red-legged frog, out of construction areas.

The one hiccup has been at the site of the new Calaveras Dam, which will replace an existing earthfill dam that seismic experts have deemed unstable. The Alameda Creek Alliance has led an effort to restore the endangered steelhead trout back into the watershed and raised concerns after release of an environmental impact statement last fall.

Steve Ritchie, the commission’s assistant general manager for water, says the agency has worked with the alliance and regulators to develop a plan to protect the trout by increasing flows and building structures to aid fish passage. The commission is hoping for a biological opinion and approval from the National Marine Fisheries Services.

Jeff Miller, Alameda Creek Alliance director, says that, while he has not seen the necessary federal and local permits—which are not expected until January—“we will be pretty supportive” if proposed commission changes are adopted.

Another major program challenge has been keeping the system operational during the 150 scheduled shutdowns of various components of the system. “Certainly, in my career, in large programs, I’ve never seen the complexity they’ve had to deal with in system shutdowns,” says Parsons’ Yoder. “It took a tremendous amount of work … to sequence those shutdowns properly so that water deliveries could occur no matter what is happening with the system at any one time.”

Balancing Act

The commission has scheduled the most complex shutdowns during low-use months, typically between December and February. Although several successful shutdowns already have taken place, several more are scheduled over the next few years. Any delays could throw off the entire schedule, Labonte warns.

The most complex shutdown to date occurred over 41 days in January and February. It called for emptying the 25-mile-long Coast Range Tunnel, the main conduit that brings water across the Sierra Nevada Mountains into much of the Bay Area. On the east side of the tunnel is a new, $90-million,...