Integrated program management team completes Prairie Waters-- one of the largest water projects in Colorado since 1976

Jon Diebel, Prairie Water Project Program Manager, CH2M HILL


The $653 million Prairie Waters Project is an innovative and environmentally friendly water system that was finished ahead of schedule and more than $100 million under budget. The project was the fastest, most cost-effective and environmentally sustainable way for the City of Aurora, Colorado, to meet its water needs. The project went from design to completion in just over five years. The Prairie Waters Project includes the extraction and pre-treatment of water from the South Platte River with an alluvial wellfield and a natural purification basin, followed by pumping the water to a new water purification facility for additional treatment and into the potable water distribution system. The system includes 34 miles of 60-inch diameter pipeline, four pump stations, a natural purification area and a new 50 Million Gallons per Day (MGD) water treatment facility that is one of the most technologically advanced in the country. Completion of a project of this magnitude within a tight timeframe required a well conceived and implemented project delivery approach and excellent teamwork.


The Prairie Waters Project (PWP), the largest water project of its type completed in more than 30 years in Colorado, provides an innovative and creative response to dwindling water resources in an arid location, using a sustainable approach to maximize existing water rights and local water sources, and deliver outstanding water quality to the City of Aurora's customers. Exhibit 1 shows a picture of the Prairie Waters administration building.

Like other western cities, Aurora is faced with increasing water demands and dwindling water supplies. This situation was vividly demonstrated by a period of extreme drought in 2002-2004 that, at one point, left the City of Aurora with only a 9-month supply of water. As a result, city leaders recognized the need for additional water supplies, and initiated a comprehensive study of water supply alternatives. More than 40 options were considered, including importing additional water from across the continental divide.

After careful review, the city decided on what is now known as the Prairie Waters Project, a sustainable system that includes the extraction and pre-treatment of water from the South Platte River with an alluvial well field and natural purification process, followed by pumping the water 34 miles to a new water purification facility (the 50-million-gallons/day [mgd] Peter Binney Water Purification Facility). The treated water is then delivered to the higher pressure zones within Aurora's potable water distribution system.

Prairie Waters Administration Building

Exhibit 1
Prairie Waters Administration Building

Key elements of the Prairie Waters Project include:

  • 17 alluvial riverbank wells with well field piping
  • 34 miles of 60-inch-diameter steel pipe
  • Three raw water pump stations with an ultimate capacity of 50 mgd
  • One potable water pump station
  • 200-acre natural purification aquifer recharge and recovery basin with 27 extraction wells
  • 50-mgd Peter Binney Water Purification Facility with expansion capability

To quickly provide a more drought-resistant water supply to a growing community, Aurora determined that the project should be online with an initial capacity of 10,000 acre-feet per year by the end of 2010. Ultimate capacity of the system is 50,000 acre-feet per year, and much of the infrastructure was constructed for this ultimate capacity. This aggressive deadline for completion of the Prairie Waters Project allowed for a period of less than 6 years for project planning, design, and construction, at an initially estimated cost of $854 million.

An integrated team concept was adopted to fulfill the critical success factors established for delivery of PWP, which were complete program within budget, meet environmental and wildlife protection goals, maintain effective communications, maintain positive public and neighbor relations during construction, resolve disputes as quickly as possible and deliver water by the end of 2010.

Completion of a project of this magnitude within a tight timeframe required a well conceived and implemented project delivery approach and excellent teamwork. The program management approach consisted of an integrated Program Management Team (PMT) comprising CH2M HILL and Aurora Water employees. A number of other engineering and construction firms also worked closely with the PMT. Possibly, the reason most responsible for the success of the Program was the team's commitment to working together toward a common goal of effective delivery of the PWP.

As part of the integrated PMT, CH2M HILL employees collaborated with the city, and each person had clearly defined roles and responsibilities for the successful management of the project. Exhibit 2 shows the team responsible for construction of the water purification facility. Overall responsibilities of the PMT included awarding and negotiating design contracts, obtaining owner acquired permits as well as overseeing permits to be obtained by the construction contractors (400 permits in all), acquisition of land and easements required for this project, negotiation of inter-governmental agreements with a number of entities, selecting and contracting with firms to perform construction management, and preparing general contract documents and administration of the bidding and contract award process.

PBWPF Team on Forebay Steps

Exhibit 2 - PBWPF Team on Forebay Steps

The following responsibilities were collaboratively approached by the PMT:

  • Pre-qualification of construction contract bidders; award of design, construction, and construction management contracts
  • Acquisition of owner-acquired permits and overseeing permits to be obtained by the construction contractors (more than 400 permits in all)
  • Negotiation of inter-governmental agreements with various entities
  • Acquisition of required land and easements
  • Preparing general construction contracting documents
  • Development of a project control system to monitor and report cost and schedule progress
  • Development and enforcement of uniform standards of quality for design and construction
  • Administration of the bidding and contract award process, and management of the professional services and construction contracts
  • Development of PrairieNet for storage and quick retrieval of project records
  • Training and administration of Aurora's third-party construction managers
  • Management of Aurora's Owner Controlled Insurance Program (OCIP)

Some key elements of the quality execution of this project included:

  • Many engineering firms working together as a team
  • Early focused attention to permitting strategy, negotiation of stakeholder agreements, and land acquisition
  • Comprehensive document handling and project control system
  • Contract documents that supported tight construction schedules by providing project specific permit and environmental information
  • Partnering prior to start of each construction contract
  • Rapid response to events that unfolded during design and construction

To keep the project on track and to maintain a fast-track schedule, CH2M HILL used several program management methods:

  • An advanced permitting tool that tracked the weekly status of every permit needed for each bid package. This allowed for easier integration of permit scheduling within bid packages, and streamlined construction and completion of the project by essentially ‘flagging’ permit needs for each project component.
  • Integration of city staff and CH2M HILL program management staff.

  • Communication systems and project management information systems that provided complete transparency and accountability for the performance of all team members, including the land acquisition team.

  • Creative approach to project development that avoided many federal permits, thereby accelerating the permitting timeline.

  • Integrated approach to obtaining land and easements from landowners and permits from adjoining counties that focused on joint interests, intergovernmental agreements, and reasonable compromises to benefit all parties.

A comprehensive Program Management Manual was one of the initial tasks completed by the PMT. The manual provided planning-level direction on all aspects of the program management approach for delivery of the PWP. The manual included sections on the Program Management Team, listing roles and responsibilities; policies and procedures of Aurora; management of the design consultants; regulatory and land acquisition guidelines; construction contract management; public involvement and outreach; risk management and quality control; and program control system for schedule and financial reporting. The manual was updated in July 2007 to capture modifications to the program management approach implemented during the first several years.

To support the tremendous exchange of information, encourage collaboration, and improve dissemination of permitting and property acquisition information, the team developed a project management information system for the project called PrairieNet (see Exhibit 3).

This tool optimized the performance of each team by enhancing their activities and facilitating knowledge sharing. The web-based portal allowed each team to not only function in its own knowledge area but easily interact with other knowledge areas to work collaboratively.

The power of this tool can best be seen in the construction management area of PrairieNet. With such a fast-paced project schedule, managing project schedules and costs was particularly important. In tracking those two tasks alone, consideration to special permit requirements, environmental constraints, safety performance, and other factors weighed heavily. To efficiently track performance indicators, a specialized ‘dashboard view’ was created that showed the status of a submittal, request for information, cost curve, and other information critical to effective management. A total of 10 individual contracts totaling nearly $450 million worth of construction were tracked and managed through this tool.

Another useful tool within PrairieNet was an Environmental Protection Plan area to interactively engage project managers, contractors, and others in specialized environmental approaches for the project. Among other PrairieNet features used by the team to assist in effective program management were a mapping feature that linked land acquisition records, permits, and design and program delivery, public involvement, permitting, and other useful tools.

PrairieNet also enhanced project integration for close-out. A specific close-out page within the portal unified all activities needed for the successful completion of the project. Specialized views allowed each knowledge area to track and update the status of the 75 close-out activities.

Prairie Net Screen Capture

Exhibit 3 - Prairie Net Screen Capture

Rapid response to events that occurred during various phases of the project was also a key to the success of this project. Specific activities included an implementation of an emergency notification plan, continuous value engineering analyses, modifications to the construction schedule to leverage an advantageous bidding climate, and an enhanced environmental protection plan following environmental coordination in early phases of construction.

Early risk identification and mitigation was critical to the project's success for several reasons, including the need to understand potential risks and develop measures to mitigate those risks throughout all phases of the project. The risk management process also provided assurance to Aurora Water that risks were properly evaluated and could be contained from a financial standpoint. A formal Risk Management Plan was developed in early 2007, with a focus on controlling the project cost. The analysis concluded, with an 80 percent confidence level, the project would cost less than the refined project budget of $754.8 Million. This financial risk evaluation and subsequent updates to the evaluation provided Aurora the financial assurance and confidence to proceed. The risk analysis provided an extra benefit to the PMT of highlighting the need to manage project risks such as environmental mishaps, avoid actions that would trigger regulatory enforcement action, limit cost increases due to change orders, and avoid permitting and land acquisition delays.

“The project met or exceeded the city's expectations, as the project team completed the fast-tracked project two months ahead of schedule, $100 million below budget and with favorable media coverage and community support.” —Mark T. Pifher, Director, Aurora Water

When CH2M HILL was selected as the program manager in 2005, the $854-million budget for this project exceeded the city's intended funding by $100 million, and would have burdened the bonding and revenue status within the city's water enterprise. Through a series of value engineering activities managed by CH2M HILL, the budget of the project was reduced from $854 million to $754 million (including all planning, engineering, construction, and land acquisition). Each construction bid package was evaluated to determine modifications that could produce savings. Nearly 100 items for all bid packages were identified as potential cuts to produce savings.

As the program progressed, CH2M HILL found numerous other ways to help the city save money. A value engineering cost management strategy was employed, with a provision added to each construction contract incentivizing the contractor to propose savings that would reduce costs. The value engineering process and quality control for various elements of the conveyance facilities for this project further resulted in actual completion costs closer to $650 million—nearly $200 million lower than the original budget.

Additional victories for the project include the following:

  • Safety—More than 3,400 construction workers worked approximately 2.5 million hours over 5 years on the Prairie Waters Project. During that time, there were only 23 OSHA recordable injuries, well below the national average for construction projects similar to the Prairie Waters Project. Additionally, there were only 5 lost time incidents,—equating to an approximately 0.59 incident rate, also well below the national average. An owner controlled insurance program, along with a rigorous contractor safety programs, directly led to this outstanding safety record. Not only did the attention to safety by the project's contractors and workers maintain a safe work environment, but the commitment boosted the project's success in quality and productivity by keeping workers focused on their daily activities.

  • Permitting and Negotiations—The project is constructed in eight local governments’ jurisdictions. Obtaining permission to construct in these areas required 18 months of complex intergovernmental negotiations, as well as managing more than 400 permits. By early 2007, the project obtained all major agreements and permits, without impacting the project's fast-tracked schedule.

  • Stakeholder Support – Maintaining momentum for the fast-tracked project called for a robust public affairs program to meet stakeholders’ needs for information and to address concerns. A diverse stakeholder group included farmers, businesses, residents in rural and urban areas, regulators, individuals and groups directly impacted by construction, and watchful environmental groups. Successful communication strategies to build stakeholder support contributed to streamlining permit approvals, maintaining positive relations with the community, and fostering favorable media coverage. During the project, more than 150 events to educate stakeholders were conducted and more the 270 news articles were written to publicize the Prairie Waters Project.

The project team engaged in more than 150 events to educate interested parties, including a speakers bureau, open house events, project tours, and community information booths. This strategy advanced project understanding among stakeholders that included the public, outside organizations, and regulating agencies

Exhibit 4
The project team engaged in more than 150 events to educate interested parties, including a speakers bureau, open house events, project tours, and community information booths. This strategy advanced project understanding among stakeholders that included the public, outside organizations, and regulating agencies.

The project has been a success not just in terms of sustainability and innovation, but also having exceeded the expectations of the City of Aurora and its residents. The Prairie Waters Project embodies an innovative approach to maximizing the use of diminishing water supply using sustainable purification technologies, providing an alternative for consideration by other water utilities in the western United States and across the country. By addressing pressing water use issues and determining feasibility of this purification approach, the city has received positive responses from local press and citizens on the project. In addition, a continuing focus on natural, sustainable engineering techniques and technologies demonstrates the city's commitment to finding solutions that are not only technologically innovative, providing treatment performance equivalent to more expensive, advanced treatment processes, but also sustainable in the longer term.

While meeting the city's needs well into the future, the project provides additional reliability for its current customers in periods of water uncertainty, initially delivering by 2010 an additional 10,000 acre-feet (3.3 billion gallons) of water each year for Aurora residents and businesses. At build-out, the project will deliver 50,000 acre-feet of additional water to the City. With a total original budgeted cost of $850 million, the project is funded through a combination of bonds, connection fees and water rates paid by Aurora's customers. The project is part of Aurora Water's approximately $1.1 billion, 10-year Capital Improvement Program to strengthen the reliability of the existing water system while increasing supplies and expanding water conservation efforts.

As further testament to the project's success, it was named in June 2011 as a Public Works Project of the Year by the American Public Works Association (APWA); in the Environment Category the APWA Public Works Project of the Year Award recognizes excellence in the environmental management and administration of the project.

Few other surface water treatment systems in the U.S. combines this innovative level of purification capability. The Prairie Waters Project has clearly been demonstrated as the most cost-effective, environmentally friendly, and expeditious way to meet the City of Aurora's needs today and sustainably for tomorrow.

Project Credits:

  • Owner: City of Aurora, Aurora, Colorado
  • Designer and Program Manager: CH2M HILL, Englewood, Colorado
  • Civil Engineer: CH2M HILL, Englewood, Colorado
  • Construction Managers: HDR Engineering, Inc., Englewood, Colorado; Carollo Engineers, Broomfield, Colorado; and Brown and Caldwell, Golden, Colorado
  • Other major contributors: MWH—Conveyance System and Pump Station Design; Western Summit—Construction of Binney Water Purification Facility and Conveyance System Pump Stations; Garney—Construction of North Campus Collection Facilities, Conveyance System Pipeline, Potable Water Pump Station; Reynolds-Tierdael—Construction of Conveyance System Pipeline; and S.J. Louis, Conveyance System Pipeline

© 2011, Larry Catalano
Published as a part of 2011 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Dublin, Ireland



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