Case Study: Waterfall Helps Manage a Drought

by Sarah Fister Gale

Drought-like conditions are the new norm for the San Joaquin Valley in California, USA. Four years ago, a state of emergency was declared as a significant drop in rainfall took its toll on area farmers, residents and businesses.

Fresno, which sits in the east central part of the valley, has been one of the hardest-hit. Historically, the city has pulled almost all of its water from an underground aquifer, and its underground water levels had dropped 100 feet (30.5 meters) over the last 80 years.

“We knew it was time to act,” says Mike Carbajal, capital projects planning manager for the City of Fresno Department of Public Utilities (DPU).

As part of a long-term solution, the city launched a five-year, US$500 million push to update and diversify its water system.

“This is the largest capital program in Fresno’s history,” Mr. Carbajal says. “We weren’t set up to deliver project management for something at this scale.”

City planners needed a heavy hitter. So DPU brought in global engineering and construction firm CH2M, with Gino Rapagna, PMP, BCEE, PE, as senior program manager.

And to help rein in the complexity that often comes hand-in-hand with such complex programs, he and his team decided to use a waterfall approach.

“Waterfall is how project management in construction works,” Mr. Rapagna says. “You could use agile methods to problem solve day-to-day issues, but you need a phased approach to manage a project of this scale and to keep it all on track.”

Waterfall process model depicted on tablet

A Clear Path

Dubbed the Recharge Fresno Program, the effort broke ground in 2013 and includes several projects:

  • An 80 million gallon per day surface water treatment facility
  • Over 30 miles of pipeline to bring raw surface water from nearby waterways to existing and new treatment facilities, and to deliver treated water to Fresno residents and businesses
  • Over 18 miles of pipeline to deliver recycled water from a new water recycling facility to landscape and agricultural users throughout the Southwest part of the city
  • Rehabilitation of existing infrastructure.
Michael Carbajal, Capital Projects Planning Manager for the City of Fresno Department of Public Utilities

This is the largest capital program in Fresno’s history. We weren’t set up to deliver project management for something at this scale.

Capital Projects Planning Manager, City of Fresno Department of Public Utilities

Fresno, California, USA

Once complete, the program aims to not only reduce pressure on the local aquifer, but also ensure the city has a secure water supply even in drought conditions. It’s also designed to meet state mandates for a more sustainable approach to water management.

Because waterfall calls for sequential phases with clear milestones, due dates and progress reviews for tasks, it can help limit potential risks that come with juggling public and private stakeholders, says Randy Hoffman, PE, a CH2M senior project manager overseeing three major projects in the program. That rigor also helps mitigate risks that come with permitting, environmental reviews and funding requirements that are part of the Recharge Fresno program.

“Being able to plan and deliver it sequentially ensures everyone is very clear about what we are trying to accomplish and where money is being spent,” he says.

Having that clear view into financing helps ensure the program complies with the Clean Water State Revolving Fund loan conditions. The federal-state partnership provides financing for water-quality infrastructure projects — making Recharge Fresno possible. But there are rules.

“You can’t just move funds from one project to another,” Mr. Hoffman says. “You have to be very clear about where every dollar is going.”

Trust the Process

Before they could break ground or kick off construction, Mr. Rapagna and his team had to build a structure that would help the city manage the projects.

Randy Hoffman, PE, CH2M Senior Project Manager

Being able to plan and deliver it sequentially ensures everyone is very clear about what we are trying to accomplish and where money is being spent.

Senior Project Manager, CH2M

USA

“We created communication tools, built a work breakdown structure, and established strategies for managing budget and schedule, and understanding variances,” Mr. Rapagna says.

CH2M didn’t make all the decisions on its own, however. If the program is to deliver long-term, Mr. Carbajal and his team had to be part of the planning.

“They’re the ones who will have to operate this infrastructure so they should be involved in this process,” says Mr. Hoffman. “It’s the best way to ensure a smooth transition between phases.”

With a process in place, the team followed a traditional five-phase waterfall approach:

  1. Planning
  2. Schematic/preliminary design
  3. Final design
  4. Construction
  5. Commissioning and closeout

Carefully laying out the phases helped the team manage the details and avoid unexpected problems that might derail the program.

Gino Rapagna, PMP, BCEE, PE, Senior Program Manager

Waterfall is how project management in construction works. You could use agile methods to problem solve day-to-day issues, but you need a phased approach to manage a project of this scale and to keep it all on track.

Senior Program Manager, CH2M

USA

Take the Kings River Pipeline project, which called for the team to install 13 miles (21 kilometers) of pipe from the river to the treatment facility. In the design phase, the team conducted extensive geological surveys to identify any underground pipes and structures that might interfere with the route. And the due diligence paid off.

“We found a lot of utility, gas and irrigation lines that we were able to avoid,” Hoffman says.

The step ensured the project stayed on schedule and in-line with progress on the treatment plant construction.

“If the treatment plant is finished but the pipeline isn’t, that creates a big risk,” Mr. Carbajal says. “The only way the plant can meet the [commissioning date] is if the pipeline and distribution center projects are finished on time as well.”

Four years into the project, the waterfall approach is working. The team expects the new treatment plant to be operational in June 2018 and the full program to be completed by early 2019. It will initially treat 54 million gallons (204 million liters) of water per day, and by 2020 will scale up to 80 million gallons (303 million liters). And that’s no drop in the bucket.

Available Together

Ready to get your copy of the PMBOK® Guide – Sixth Edition and Agile Practice Guide?

Order Now

For PMI Members

Receive your complimentary copy of the PMBOK® Guide – Sixth Edition and Agile Practice Guide.

Download Now