Isabella Lake, California, is the site of the one of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ 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 serve, and work with numerous public and private entities to accomplish their infrastructure mission.
In fact, 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.
This is especially true 40 miles northeast of Bakersfield, California, where the Isabella Dams loom over the Kern River Valley. An additional 16 feet higher these days, actually.
“To us, partnership means establishing the processes and guidelines by which every stakeholder’s voice is heard,” said Victor Ozuna, resident engineer for the Isabella Dam Safety Modification Project. “There has to be a forum where everyone’s ideas and concerns get discussed.”
It’s been a long road from when USACE first identified Isabella Dam in 2005 as one of the highest-risk dams in the U.S. 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 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but senior USACE 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 at Isabella Dam
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, or 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.”
The DSPC is administered by the South Pacific Division, the district’s higher headquarters. But the onsite expertise the center provides is an invaluable asset on a project like Isabella Dam.
Besides the DSPC, the Sacramento District partners with many different entities to accomplish the Isabella Dam Safety Modification Project. This includes federal and local levels of government, the local community, and private contractors.
At the federal level, the Sacramento District partners with the U.S. Forest Service, 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 2-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 the 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 Forest Service, with input from the local community.
“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.”
But it’s more than just than just asking for input for a new a new visitor center. In fact, since the beginning of the Isabella DSMP, Sacramento 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.
“At one point we reduced Highway 155 to a single-lane road,” said Ozuna. “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.
The communities near Isabella Lake include the town of Lake Isabella, Kernville and Wofford Heights, among others. Many of the residents in these local communities have been here for decades and feel a profound attachment to this land. The Sacramento District has been striving throughout the project to complete the dam modifications on time, with as little impact to surrounding neighborhoods as possible.
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 a durable relationship with the prime contractor at the Isabella DSMP, Flatiron Dragados Sukut Joint Venture.
One way to communicate with the contractor is the Contractor Performance Assessment Reporting System, or CPARS. This tool allows the project team to log official feedback about where the contractor is succeeding and where they need to improve.
“The focus with CPARS is on providing a quality, on-time final product and achieving the best possible rating for the Final Completed Performance Evaluation,” said Manuel Morejon, project manager for Flatiron Dragados Sukut Joint Venture.
The informal, face-to-face communication that takes place at the resident office is just as 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.
Educational and Employment Collaborations with Universities
A few key universities have partnered with the Sacramento District on recruiting, research and design efforts. The collaboration between USACE and Fresno State University benefits both parties.
The Sacramento District established a presence at Fresno State recruiting events for engineering students early in the Isabella Dam project. Eventually, the university took advantage of the immense project happening in their backyard and began inviting district engineers to present guest lectures for university students.
“They also allowed us to sit on their industry board, in which we give them feedback on what the industry is looking for in new engineering and construction management graduates,” said Ozuna. “Even if the students don’t come and work for us, at least they learn who we are and what we do.”
Ozuna said his employees have been excited to teach as guest lecturers or share information with young engineering students at career fairs.
“Such opportunities not only help us recruit new employees, but retain the ones we have,” he said.
Fresno State isn’t the only center of scholarship involved in the dam’s construction. During the DSMP’s design phase, USACE collaborated with researchers at Utah State University to build a working model of the 1,200-foot-long labyrinth weir currently being built at Isabella.
The researchers ran water through the scaled model to test the capacity of the labyrinth weir and to ensure that the structure would reduce flood risk to the Central Valley as intended.
“Utah State’s involvement makes this a truly interstate project,” said Caldwell. “Folks from up and down the West are collaborating to make this improved dam a reality.”
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 over two million exposure hours without a safety incident.
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.”