June 23, 2010

10 minutes with Julie Labonte

JULIE LABONTE is director of the San Francisco Public Utility Commissionís Hetch Hetchy Water System Improvement Program. She recently sat down with Brown and Caldwell Water Resources Practice Leader Cindy Paulson to talk about SFPUC’s historic $4.6 billion effort to repair, replace and seismically upgrade the system that delivers water over 167 miles to millions of Bay Area customers.

Beth Kang

Name: Julie Labonte

Title: Director, Water System Improvement Program (WSIP)

Background: Julie Labonte is director of the San Francisco Public Utility Commissionís Hetch Hetchy Regional Water System Improvement Program (WSIP), a $4.6 billion effort to repair, replace and seismically upgrade the aging regional water delivery system serving San Francisco, San Mateo and parts of Alameda and Santa Clara counties, as well as upcountry customers near the Tuolumne River.

Julie is a registered Professional Civil Engineer with 20 years of experience in utility engineering and has held positions in both the private and public sectors. Her experience focuses on the master planning and design of various public infrastructures. Before being appointed WSIP director, she managed the utility improvements for all redevelopment projects in San Francisco, and initiated and directed the master planning of a 30-year, multibillion-dollar wastewater capital improvement program for the city.

A native of Quebec, Canada, she is a former ranked tennis star and inveterate world traveler.

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How did you get started in the water industry?
Julie Labonte: I started my career in the private sector working for a San Diego consulting firm, where I had an opportunity to work on a wide variety of civil engineering projects. That’s when I realized I really enjoyed water projects and decided to pursue a second master's degree at UC Berkeley with a specialty in water.

Tell us about the Hetch Hetchy Regional Water System Improvement Program.
Labonte: Our regional water system is considered by many to be an engineering marvel — it is a gravity-fed system that spans 167 miles from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park to San Francisco. WSIP is a huge capital improvement program that consists of 86 projects that enhance our ability to provide reliable, affordable, high-quality water to all our customers in the Bay Area. With the system crossing three of the nation’s most active earthquake faults, this is first and foremost a seismic reliability program.

We’re building three new tunnels — including the first under San Francisco Bay — a new dam and the largest UV treatment facility in California.  We’re also retrofitting our two existing treatment plants and installing miles of pipelines throughout the system. Our biggest technical challenge is coming up with a pipeline design at the Hayward Fault crossing that can withstand a 7-foot displacement.

What have been the greatest challenges the program has faced?
Labonte: Although this program includes some fairly complex and sizable engineering projects, our greatest challenges are not necessarily technical in nature. Balancing construction of $4.6 billion worth of improvements and being a good environmental steward presents its own challenges. Equally demanding is performing this work while keeping the system in service. Some have likened this program to fixing a 747 while it is still in flight. Besides working in seven counties, many projects cross residential neighborhoods, major transit routes, commercial areas, school yards and other utilities, which present their own impediments.

What have you learned from the program that might help other agency leaders facing similar projects?
Labonte: The importance of having a strong implementation strategy and standardized business processes upfront. The strategy must take into account the political landscape and institutional boundaries under which the program will be delivered, and should address questions such as: How aggressive do we want to be when establishing the program’s baseline schedule and budget? Should we make a strong commitment to the environment by going beyond what is legally prescribed? Should we proceed at risk and try to accelerate implementation by overlapping the environmental and design phases of projects?

I’m a person who believes in establishing standardized systems to ensure consistency and efficiency in pretty much all delivery practices. I personally reviewed all internal processes and procedures for quality, risk, change and construction management, program control and contracting.

Finally, I cannot overemphasize the importance of gaining and maintaining public trust. The use of public funds to implement our program requires that we be transparent and accountable.

What will be the biggest benefits of WSIP to SFPUC customers?
Labonte: Ensuring a safe and reliable water supply for 2.5 million people in the Bay Area for generations to come is big. Among our goals are to restore water within 24 hours of a major earthquake and to have an adequate water supply during drought conditions. Also a must for us is to continue to deliver some of the highest quality drinking water in the nation.

The WSIP project

WSIP is an immense planning and engineering undertaking. Begun in 2002, nearly 56 of 86 projects are either in construction or completed. Some of the program’s largest and most complex projects are entering the construction phase.

This program has been directed by city staff — an unusual arrangement for a program this size, presenting unique opportunities for Julie and her team. And the results are showing. WSIP has had tremendous support from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and other stakeholders. The program also earned approval for a Program EIR, as well as numerous project-specific environmental reviews — with not one legal challenge.

At present, more than $1.5 billion worth of projects are in construction and WSIP has final approval for all funds required to complete the program in late 2015. 

What have been the biggest surprises?
Labonte: I’ve been surprised by how much pride stakeholders have in the Hetch Hetchy system. The users love their water and where it’s from. There is a strong connection to Hetch Hetchy water, almost like a favorite brand.

Some of our technical surprises have included finding that a trace of the Serra Fault extends under the treated water reservoirs of one of our water treatment plants. Additionally, we discovered that the site of a new dam was under laid with high concentrations of naturally occurring asbestos.  These two issues alone have added about $250 million to the program.

One very pleasant surprise has been the favorable bidding environment. Since December 2008, we have not awarded a contract over the engineer’s estimate.

WSIP is a unique blend of staff and consultants. What do you think are the long-term benefits of this partnership?
Labonte: It is true that having a capital improvement program of this magnitude led by city staff is unusual. In my view, this arrangement has allowed us to deliver the program much more efficiently.

Consultants provide the expertise not available in-house and address peak staffing demands, while city staff is better positioned to facilitate decision-making and establish implementation strategies. Another obvious benefit of our organizational structure is the professional growth opportunities it provides our staff.

What have you enjoyed the most as director of WSIP?
Labonte: I love the multifaceted aspect of this program. It involves so many disciplines — environmental, legal, financial, real estate, communications and politics — in addition to pure engineering. I’ve also loved building the great team that we have. But I will say I miss the technical side, rolling up my sleeves and rolling out plans.

What’s next for you?
Labonte: Well, right now we’re about 90 percent complete on the design and have been transitioning the program as a whole into construction for about a year. I’ll soon be co-locating with our construction team. I’ve spent most of my career on the pre-construction phases of projects, so this will be an incredible adventure. It feels like I’m going back to graduate school again!

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