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.