Julie Labonte didn’t know what her high-achieving career as a water engineer held in store for her as she bounded down Mount Kilimanjaro in 2005, propelled by gravity, in the midst of a yearlong globetrot.
The Canadian-born, U.S.-trained engineer had walked away from an illustrious career with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission for a multi-continental jaunt, peppered with frequent climbs of rugged mountains.
While working for the SFPUC — which oversees such services as water and sewers around the region — in San Francisco and its suburbs over a decade, Labonte had managed fluoridation of the water supply, a water treatment plant, utilities strategies for major redevelopment projects and massive sewer improvements.
“I always had this love for water,” said Labonte, who holds related master’s degrees from UC Berkeley and San Diego State University. “I understood very early on that water would eventually be the place to be because of the need for water, the shortage of water and the misuse of water.”
But Labonte’s wanderlust grew strong after the SFPUC assigned her to a project to build a fossil fuel power plant in southeastern San Francisco.
Labonte wasn’t interested in working on a project involving electricity, which she says is less tangible and less interesting than water, and the project was mired in controversy.
“I was turning 40 and my partner and I decided that we wanted to see the world,” she said. “We basically sold everything we owned. We didn’t own a key; we didn’t even own a vehicle. We decided that we were going to end up wherever we ended up.”
After a year spent narrowly escaping international hazards — including a tsunami, a Maoist uprising and a Bolivian coup — Labonte returned to North America with an open mind about her future.
SFPUC officials asked Labonte to return to work on the power plant project, which has since been nixed.
Instead of returning to work for the SFPUC, Labonte began leaning toward working in Vancouver to help build a subway for the 2010 Winter Olympics.
But the SFPUC made a new offer — one that proved irresistible to Labonte and to other leading water engineers from around the world: Work on the Water System Improvement Program.
The WSIP, pronounced “wissip,” is a $4 billion to $5 billion bond-funded project approved by San Francisco voters in 2002.
Labonte now oversees the massive public works effort, which aims to rebuild, replace, reinforce and supplement the pipes, reservoirs and mechanical facilities in the Hetch Hetchy system.
It is through that unique 167-mile system — powered almost entirely by gravity — that fresh drinking water from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir high in Yosemite National Park is funneled, treated, pumped and stored for 2.5 million Bay Area businesses and residents.
Roughly $1 billion worth of work is planned in 2010 as the tempo is radically escalating. The focus is shifting from completed local projects to massive regional ones.
The money from the bond will go toward 85 projects in the region that will create more than 28,000 jobs, according to the SFPUC. Construction began in 2003 and is expected to run until 2015.
The economic climate has reduced project labor and material costs as the project has entered its most intensive construction phase, which will help reduce future rate hikes needed to repay project lenders, Labonte said.
Construction costs fell worldwide after the economy collapsed late last year as investment in building and public works projects fell abruptly. Demand for raw materials plummeted, and contractors and workers found themselves competing to work on a suddenly shrunken pool of projects.
As a result, bids for WSIP projects have been coming in this year at 20 to 30 percent below budget, the SFPUC announced this month. Recession-era savings will help offset $200 million in cost overruns that were previously identified.
WSIP is designed to protect water supplies after an earthquake on any of the three tectonic faults that cross the century-old network. It’s also needed to help catch up on maintenance that was deferred in recent years to pay for other city programs.
“The complexity associated with the seismic design has attracted some top people,” Labonte said. “We’ve attracted top-notch engineers from the private sector because it’s such an exciting program.”
The project is providing thousands of trade, engineering, project management, public affairs and support jobs during a recession that left more than one out of every 10 Californians unemployed.
The fruit of the huge team’s labor will be tested after an earthquake, when officials say clean water will quickly resume tumbling down the mountain, propelled by gravity, through massive pipelines and into Bay Area drinking glasses, fire-hoses and factories.
“Within 24 hours, our system will be able to deliver the winter water demand,” Labonte said. “Within 30 days, we will be able to go back to a full average demand of 300 million gallons a day.”
Reservoir’s snowmelt powers, quenches city
The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which catches snowmelt that keeps San Franciscans quenched all year, has remained controversial since it was proposed more than a century ago in the middle of a national park.
Spurred by the 1906 earthquake and fire — and by the domination of The City’s water supply by private interests — city officials lobbied Congress to allow them to build a dam in Yosemite National Park to trap drinking water and produce hydroelectric power.
President Woodrow Wilson signed the Raker Act in 1913, which granted San Francisco the right to dam a part of the park for water and power. The act also provided San Francisco with rights of way needed to run electrical and water pipes through the park.
The reservoir was built between 1919 and 1923, and construction of dams and pipes continued until the 1970s. The massive water system now serves all of San Francisco’s water needs, plus nearly 2 million customers in surrounding counties. It also provides municipal power for San Francisco’s Police, Fire and other departments.
Spurred by the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, voters in 2002 approved the Water System Improvement Program, which will see more than $4 billion spent on new and repaired pipelines and other facilities between San Francisco and the dam by the end of 2015.
Because of pressure by environmentalists to remove the reservoir, and because it’s already considered seismically safe, work on the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir — and the O’Shaughnessy Dam that holds it in place — was not included in the seismic retrofit project.
Maintaining water flow in case of quake
The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is overhauling the Hetch Hetchy system, which delivers drinking water to The City.
$4.4 billion: Original Water System Improvement Program cost forecast
$4.6 billion: Latest forecast
$16.81: Customers’ current average monthly water bill in a multiunit building
$43.00: Same customers’ anticipated monthly bill in 2014 to help repay WSIP bonds
28,000: Direct and indirect jobs expected to be created by WSIP
11 million: Hours of employment to be created for skilled craftspeople
35: Projects within San Francisco
50: Projects outside San Francisco
30 days: Time that customers could lose SFPUC water after earthquake if WSIP isn’t implemented
63 percent: Federally determined chance of major earthquake in Bay Area in next 30 years
Billions earmarked for water projects
Seven Water System Improvement Program projects expected to cost $1.5 billion are slated to break ground next year.
$500 million, five-year project: Bore a 5-mile tunnel beneath the Bay from Newark to San Mateo County and lay pipeline from Fremont to Redwood City
$337 million, four-year project: Bore the 3.5-mile New Irvington Tunnel for a pipeline to transport water between the Sunol Valley and Fremont; the tunnel will run parallel to the existing Irvington Tunnel
$280 million, 3½-year project: Reinforce and add pipelines in the San Joaquin Pipeline System, which carries water 47.5 miles across the San Joaquin Valley
$192 million, three-year project: Improvements and upgrades to the Crystal Springs/San Andreas Transmission System, which is a series of pipes, culverts, reservoir outlets and a pump station that move water to the Peninsula’s treatment plant
$145 million, 2½-year project: Increase sustainable capacity at the Sunol Valley Water Treatment Plant in Alameda County
$80 million, two-year project: Repair or replace segments of a 19-mile pipeline, Crystal Springs Pipeline No. 2, on the Peninsula
$6 million, one-year project: Improve water-quality control facilities as final phase of work at Pulgas Balancing Reservoir in San Mateo County
See The Examiner's Hetch Hetchy series here.