General Water

Upper Narrows Emergency Pipeline Project was Unlike Any Other

VVWRA

By Logan Olds General Manager, Victor Valley Wastewater Reclamation Authority

It’s safe to say that the Upper Narrows Emergency Pipeline project was unlike any other for the Vic­tor Valley Wastewa­ter Reclamation Authority.

When a series of powerful storms in late 2010 broke open a large sewer line, spilling 42 million gallons of sewage into the Mojave River, the stage was set for one of the largest and most important recent FEMA projects in California.

Over the next five years, planners, engineers and construction teams navigated complex technical and en­vironmental obstacles – first in lay­ing nearly 5,000 feet of temporary pipe, then designing and building a permanent solution that included tunneling under the streets of Old Town Victorville and under 270 feet of rock through an earthquake fault.

To serve Apple Valley, two 16-inch pipes were installed using direction­al drilling 40 feet below the Mojave River and under one of the busiest railroad lines in the nation.

The $41 million project was de­signed to keep the new pipe out of the river and away from other envi­ronmentally sensitive areas, but the challenges grew with each passing month. Many of these were impos­sible to anticipate – unusual geologi­cal formations, endangered speciesand archeological remains – but we had to persevere. The immediate and long-term public safety and well-being of the water of our region de­pended on it.

Now it seems we’re being made an example of – in the wrong way.

In recent weeks, stories have sur­faced questioning the project’s costs and accounting. These were based on a draft audit from the Office of Inspector General (OIG), claiming that VVWRA did not properly ac­count for and expend $31.7 million in FEMA grant funds.

To say that we were caught off guard by the report would be a massive un­derstatement. Only six months ear­lier, we were told that the audit was 95% complete and that our expenses and accounting were “generally ac­ceptable.”

While we appreciate the federal gov­ernment’s checks and balances, this particular audit trail leaves us baffled – because of what we were led to be­lieve and the nature of the pipeline project itself.

Even in the best of circumstances – never mind something as complex as Upper Narrows – it is not unusual for a major engineering project to come in more expensive than origi­nally thought because of unforeseen challenges. Tunneling projects often experience cost overruns in excess of 30%. With Upper Narrows the additional costs were less than half that – approximately 15%, or only 5% above the 10% contingency built into the project. It’s the only time, in fact, that a project we’ve managed has exceeded the standard 10% con­tingency, which speaks to both our excellent record of controlling costs and the unusual – and urgent – na­ture of the Upper Narrows project.

The extent of the damage – and the work required to fix it – was some­thing we could not have anticipated. We performed triage first and then maneuvered through unchartered territory to ensure the safety of the community we serve and the protec­tion of our groundwater and envi­ronment. Our teams used every type of boring technology in existence, outside of using explosives, includ­ing the use of a massive 80-inch bor­ing machine, smaller micro tunnel­ing machines, horizontal directional drilling, pipe ramming and open cut construction. In addition, 10 concrete manholes ranging from 48-96 inches in diameter were installed.

These were no small tasks – com­plicated even more by challenges beyond our control, such as the need to ensure that wetlands, critical habi­tat and endangered species such as the Least Bell’s Vireo would not be disrupted. The project required close collaboration with the Native Amer­ican community to ensure that any artifacts or remains were handled with great care with the railroads to ensure that the work being done beneath crossings was properly en­gineered, and that all appropriate special permits were secured. Even with the invaluable support of these groups and other stakeholders such as the Kemper-Campbell Ranch, The Lewis Center and the City of Victor­ville, the project was as daunting as any we’d ever encountered.

Along the way we went to great lengths to ensure that every “i” was dotted and every “t” crossed when it came to spending and account­ing – and felt confident, based on our communications with auditors last March, that we had taken all ap­propriate steps. Recently, the Daily Press published a report referencing a transcript of that phone call – sug­gesting that any lingering questions the auditors might have had were small in nature.

We provided the auditors detailed answers to those questions and had no reason to believe that anything was wrong.

We still don’t, which is why we find ourselves scratching our heads over the draft audit we received six months later.

Whatever the internal dynamics are within OIG and FEMA, we stand ready to defend how this critically important project was managed and accounted for.