USACE Sacramento District has a proven track record of facing challenges head-on. When 2020 brought with it the Novel Coronavirus, the District responded quickly to address the needs of a rapidly changing work environment.
The public health emergency necessitated development of new methodologies that would ensure the safety of Corps employees, contractors and residents, all while continuing crucial construction. Social distancing, teleworking, and additional personal protective equipment requirements, along with the public’s ongoing need for information and input, saw District employees drawing on creativity and technical expertise in new ways. USACE management and employees developed effective and meaningful ways to work together, whether in the field or remotely from home.
Colonel James J. Handura, Commander of the Corps’ Sacramento District, expanded on the old adage, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” stating, “I certainly could not be more proud of the way everyone within the District has adapted to the unprecedented challenges COVID-19 brought to our workplace.” He added, “The District’s attention may have had to shift slightly to accommodate the needs of a pandemic situation, but its’ primary focus remains on balancing team member safety with project delivery.”
The Colonel reiterated that critical infrastructure projects have remained on track and move towards targeted completion as scheduled. But while the Corps’ focus remained on flood risk reduction, a shelter-in-place order issued mid-March brought with it additional challenges.
The American River Common Features Project, a cooperative $1.8 billion effort between USACE, Central Valley Flood Protection Board, California Department of Water Resource, and the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency, serves as a piece of a larger plan to help the Sacramento region achieve 200-year level of flood protection, meaning there would be a one-in-200 chance in any given year for flooding. The project, scheduled for completion in 2024, features approximately 13 miles of cutoff walls, 21 miles of bank protection, 5 miles of levee stabilization, 5 miles of levee raises and the widening of the Sacramento Weir and Bypass.
This year marked the start of major construction on the project, and the pandemic hit just as crews were mobilizing, meaning both USACE and its contractors faced unexpected public impacts.
Local residents, now forced to stay home, were contending with noise, vibrations, dust, and loss of recreation. The Corps received calls requesting the crucial work be delayed, and contractors had to deal with public scrutiny of their every action. Despite navigating these uncommon obstacles, work has remained on track for the $64 million Sacramento River East Levee Contract 1, which will see approximately 3 miles of levee improvements constructed, including a combination of seepage cutoff walls and seepage berms at 5 locations by January 2021.
“It is a large, complex project intensified by the shelter-in-place order,” said USACE project manager Nikole May. “The team has had to transform to a virtual environment to the greatest extent possible and the residents are having to work and go to school from home with major construction happening in their neighborhood. Everyone has done an amazing job at being adaptable and navigating some uncommon challenges.”
While work on the Sacramento River levee was facing additional challenges, another project just north of downtown Sacramento was finding a surprising benefit from the stay-at-home order.
Sacramento's Natomas Basin is considered one of the most at-risk areas in the nation for catastrophic flooding. The basin is surrounded by 42 miles of levee, which are being upgraded by the Corps, CVFPB, DWR, and SAFCA as part of a $1.5 billion program. The levee that protects the basin is also, often, the main thoroughfare for transportation as it sits on top of the Garden Highway roadway, a two-lane road that runs along the basin’s perimeter.
In March 2020, a section of Garden Highway was just reopening after more than 8 months of being closed. The next phase of roadwork was not scheduled to start for several months; however, the project team saw an opportunity.
“Not as many people were driving because a lot of businesses were shut down or operating a reduced levels,” said project manager John Hoge. “By re-sequencing our work, we could start the roadwork in April and get a bulk of the work done before the economy reopened.”
The re-sequenced section was completed in June, and construction rolled right into the final phase of work on schedule. This phase of work was completed in October 2020.
“It was a lot of work in a short amount of time to re-sequence, but it was the right thing to do,” said Hoge.
Regular construction updates, along with improved web pages, have been key to addressing the public’s concerns during an unprecedented time. To their credit, the public, which has come to expect traditional information meetings, embraced the transition to real time/live streaming technology.
Although the current public health crisis brings with it extraordinary challenges, the Sacramento District remains committed to its mission of ensuring public safety. “We will continue to achieve this by delivering vital civil engineering services,” Col. Handura stated, adding, “By empowering everyone within the District to approach this challenge with enhanced creativity and teamwork, we are ideally positioned to push forward with needed flood risk management improvements for one of the most at-risk regions in the nation.”