It Takes a Village at Isabella: Partnerships at One of USACE’s Largest Projects
BY JEREMY CROFT, SACRAMENTO DISTRICT
Isabella Lake, California, is the site of the one of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) most prominent examples of partnering. Although it has the USACE name on it, this nearly $650 million investment in flood risk reduction for the southern Central Valley is hardly the work of one agency.
“Everything we do requires our commitment to proactive, collaborative, working relationships with partners across the public and private sectors,” said Col. Chad Caldwell, commander of the USACE Sacramento District. “The Isabella Dam Safety Modification Project builds on lessons learned from other successful dam safety projects, and one of those key lessons is the value of partnership.”
Whether on military projects, levee or dam safety improvements, veterans’ hospitals, or recreation management, USACE never works alone. They live in the communities they construction continues on the labyrinth weir, one of the key components of the overall project.
Employees of USACE’s South Pacific Division and Sacramento District pose for a group photo with Col. Toni Gant, the division commander, and Col. James Handura, the former Sacramento District commander, at the Isabella Dam Safety Modification Project in Lake Isabella, California, Nov. 30, 2021. In the background, construction continues on the labyrinth weir, one of the key components of the overall project. Other modifications include 16-foot raises to both the main and auxiliary dam, reinforcement of the auxiliary dam, and construction of a new emergency spillway.
U.S. ARMY PHOTO BY JEREMY CROFT
“On a project like Isabella, you’re not just in and out – this is a long-duration project where our folks will be living and working in the community for years,” said Tambour Eller, the deputy district engineer. “It’s important to us to be good neighbors, which is why we hire local folks and do our best to communicate proactively with those affected by our projects.”
USACE recognizes many different kinds of relationships between federal, state, and local entities. They can often be cost-sharing partners, stakeholders, local sponsors, or something else entirely. But every agency USACE works with is considered a “partner” in the broadest sense, in that they all share a common vision for success.
It’s been a long road from when USACE first identified Isabella Dam in 2005 as one of the highest-risk dams in the United States for failure or overtopping. From congressional appropriations to local citizens invested in the communities surrounding the Kern County reservoir, USACE admits, it’s never done the work alone.
PARTNERSHIP IS A USACE LEADERSHIP PRIORITY
Partnership has always been a key value of USACE, but its senior leaders have recently reiterated its importance.
The 55th Chief of Engineers and USACE Commanding General Lt. Gen. Scott Spellmon is more focused than ever on ensuring successful partnerships inside and outside the federal government.
“All USACE professionals should be committed to building and sustaining successful value-driven partnerships that enable us to safely deliver quality projects on time and within budget,” said Spellmon in a recent email to USACE leaders.
Leaders up and down USACE, both military and civilian, have echoed these sentiments.
“Partnerships are incredibly vital on the West Coast, with its diverse population and land uses, many different demands on fresh water sources, and other challenges,” said Cheree Peterson, regional business director for the South Pacific Division. “The Corps of Engineers is uniquely suited to forge mutually beneficial relationships addressing these important concerns.”
THE DISTRICT’S MANY PARTNERS
The Isabella Dam Safety Modification Project is one of USACE’s most challenging. Its resident office is located more than 300 miles from the district headquarters, making hands-on leadership challenging for the district’s brain trust. In addition, the project is one of few – if any – projects in USACE that mines its own materials onsite.
The new emergency spillway at Isabella had to be blasted and carved out of solid rock. The material removed from the spillway’s path then goes to an onsite aggregate plant that crushes the rock into different gradations. Then, workers lay this rock down in precise increments to maximize the strength and safe drainage capacity of the main and auxiliary dams.
All this work requires a level of expertise that would tax a USACE district to the limit. But the Sacramento District happens to house the Dam Safety Production Center (DSPC) one of USACE’s premier West Coast hubs for dam design.
“The USACE approach to the technical challenges at Isabella is to bring the best, most capable team to reduce risk to those living downstream of the dam,” said Creg Hucks, director of the DSPC. “Our team consists of some of the most talented dam safety professionals within USACE and the entire industry. In collaboration with our contractor, we’re committed to delivering a high-quality project that will serve for decades.”
Besides the DSPC, the Sacramento District partners with many different entities to accomplish the Isabella Dam Safety Modification Project. At the federal level, the Sacramento District partners with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), which is responsible for much of the land in the Lake Isabella-Kernville area and part of the Sequoia National Forest.
“Thanks to the Corps of Engineers’ hard work, recreational opportunities and visitor services will be much improved by the end of this project,” said Philip Desenze, acting district ranger for the Sequoia National Forest’s Kern River Ranger District. “USACE has maintained constant two-way communication with our district, the community, and other stakeholders throughout the Kern River Valley. The Corps’ team is forthcoming, responsible, and proactive; we couldn’t have asked for a better partner.”
The ranger district previously maintained a visitor center and fire station located on a bluff overlooking Isabella Lake and smack dab in between the reservoir’s main dam and auxiliary dams – the location identified by USACE engineers for the DSMP’s construction of a new Labyrinth Weir and emergency spillway. Because the facilities were now sitting in the footprint of the project’s upcoming modifications, they had to be demolished before construction on new features could begin.
But true to good partnership, USACE constructed a replacement USFS fire station on the southeast side of the lake, which also currently houses an interim visitor center until a permanent facility can be built elsewhere in the town of Lake Isabella – a site ultimately selected by the USFS, with input from the local community.
Since the beginning of the Isabella DSMP, district leaders have made partnering with the local community a priority. Every month, project leaders meet with a group of local community members representing the area businesses and residents to pass along project updates and address issues that may impact the surrounding community during construction.
Traffic interruption is one such impact. It’s inevitable that during a four-year construction project set in the middle of a sizable recreational hub and vibrant community, there will be plenty of challenges where local coordination is vital.
Workers shovel drain rock dumped by a front-end loader on the downstream side of the main dam at the Isabella Dam Safety Modification Project in Lake Isabella, California, April 28, 2022. Crews with the Sacramento District have raised the height of both the Main and Auxiliary Dams by 16 feet to reduce flood risk to downstream communities, including Bakersfield. Phase Two of the project, which encompasses the dam safety construction work, is substantially complete as of November 2022.
ARMY PHOTO BY JEREMY CROFT
“At one point, we reduced Highway 155 to a single-lane road,” said Victor Ozuna, Isabella DSMP resident engineer. “We were in constant communication with the public to help them navigate that lane closure and other traffic delays, to the point that they provided feedback that helped us adjust the timing of the traffic light for better traffic flow and safety.”
This steady stream of communication helped reduce the risk of a head-on collision during the traffic limitation.
Of course, nothing would get built without the help of private contractors who partner with the Sacramento District to design and build the nation’s finest infrastructure projects.
Strong government-contractor partnerships can occasionally present a challenge because each party’s interests are so diverse. But a culture of respect and professionalism has helped Ozuna and his team weather these challenges and forge U.S. a durable relationship with the prime contractor at the Isabella DSMP, Flatiron-Dragados-Sukut Joint Venture.
Both the formal Contractor Performance Assessment Reporting System and the informal, face-to-face communication that takes place at the resident office are vital to creating a culture of respect. Ozuna and his team begin every partnership meeting with the contractors by sharing positive information and accomplishments from both sides.
“It’s good to remind ourselves that despite any challenges we might have, there are things in the project that are going well,” said Ozuna.
PROJECT STATUS AND CONCLUSION
Summer 2022 is scheduled to be the last recreation season impacted by the dams and spillway construction, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony tentatively planned for fall or winter.
Over the last four years, the Isabella DSMP team has raised the main and auxiliary dams by 16 feet; re-routed Highway 155 so it no longer passes over the dam for greater safety; and carved a giant emergency spillway into the Kern Valley rock. They’ve also completed more than 2 million exposure hours without a safety incident.
A front-end loader carries drain rock to be placed on the downstream side of the Main Dam at the Isabella Dam Safety Modification Project in Lake Isabella, California, April 28, 2022.
U.S. ARMY PHOTO BY JEREMY CROFT
Other phases of the project will include construction of the new Sequoia National Forest visitor center, improvements to the main dam campground, and ongoing monitoring of Isabella Dam to ensure the improvements are operating as intended. And as always, partnerships will remain vital to our success.
“The key to successful partnering is a mindset and a culture that starts with our program and project leadership,” said Caldwell. “That mindset is based on understanding whether we’re focused on delivering the project or on merely administering the contract. At the end of the day, we aren’t winning anything by administering a flawless contract if we fail to deliver a successful project.”