Viewpoint: Dodging responsibility for water infrastructure is a monstrous mistake
By Harlan L. Kelly, Jr.
The threat of water supply failures in America is the sleeping monster of public infrastructure, and this monster is waking up. We know it’s there. We know it’s nasty. We know that someday it can rise up and bite us. And yet, from coast to coast we face a pipe-and-plant crisis of massive proportions, and it isn’t getting sufficient attention.
In an environment of shrinking public dollars, fixing water systems may be very difficult. But it will be more difficult for city leaders to explain 20 years from now why they didn’t do it. In that spirit, here are three lessons we learned from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s $4.6 billion, 82-project Water System Improvement Project, which is on track to finish on time and on budget in 2016. There are many more lessons, of course, but these offer a means of relieving anxiety, because back in 2005 as construction began, we felt those chilling fears that are now likely very common for cities facing similar challenges.
Lesson 1: Think outside the org chart: SFPUC has a whole cadre of excellent engineers and managers who are proud of their ability to manage and control complex projects. But it was critical to bring onto our team a number of consultants who had the particular expertise that we did not possess — boring long and deep pipeline tunnels, for instance. This approach also would serve us well during peak activity periods and when unforeseen crunches developed. We needed to think outside of our organization and work with our people to make sure that these hybrid teams of consultants and staff — not normal for our organization — would be accepted and would work. Before a shovel was turned, our managers, employees and their unions all came together for the common good — an outcome that contributed mightily to program success. A second benefit was a real transfer of knowledge that makes our staff even better.
Lesson 2: Minimize risky business: Risk management is the identification, assessment and prioritization of risks to your projects, followed by coordination of resources to minimize them. Starting out, we didn’t do much of that. Starting again, we certainly would. As an example, if we wanted to minimize the risk of the cost of steel rising, we might look at buying early and stockpiling — pipeline futures, you might say. Another example: we have to manage a lot of water supply shutdowns to get the job done. But we can only do that during periods of low demand. If we missed one of those periods, we might spend another year and a lot more money to get that project done. Risk management included making sure contractors were serious about meeting shutdown schedules. We offered incentives: completion bonuses. That prompted attention to such things as quality control — steel pipe inspected overseas at the factory, for instance, to make sure it would pass inspection when delivered and not force a missed shutdown.
Lesson 3: Embrace technology: We are aggressively using technology to speed up processes, streamline and coordinate tasks, and enhance transparency and accountability. We’re applying it to everything, from our quarterly update reports to our solicitation and contracting process for bids, RFPs and RFQs. Our Construction Management Information System (CMIS) is an automated and standardized management system in which data for all our capital projects is immediately synched into the system so that decision makers can use it posthaste. And the aim of the San Francisco OnLine Invoicing System (SOLIS) we developed is to pay 90 percent of construction invoices within 15 business days and 90 percent of professional services invoices within 21 business days.
Doing this right has taken an entire village of solid SFPUC employees, consultants and contractors, all marching together toward 2016. If you had asked at the beginning whether all the pieces would come together this well, you might have heard a little hemming and hawing. Not now. That’s very good for our 2.5 million water customers. Similar success is available for intrepid water managers across the country. It’s a good time to start!
Harlan L. Kelly, Jr., the assistant general manager, Infrastructure, for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, is responsible for implementing over $10 billion in capital programs for water, sewer and power.