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Legal battle looms for flawed US water project

Buckman direct diversion

Investigations are underway in Santa Fe, New Mexico to find out why a water treatment project costing around £150M hit problems only a few years into service.

Construction work on the Buckman Direct Diversion Project (BDD) started in 2008. The design-build team was CH2M Hill in a joint venture with Western Summit Constructors. Engineers CDM Smith partnered with the City of Santa Fe and Santa Fe County to develop the BDD. 

The idea was to pump water from the Rio Grande river, 18km and more than 305m up to the Buckman Water Treatment Plant, a drinking water treatment facility that uses membrane filtration, ozonation, and granular activated carbon contactors to produce the drinking water. The massive infrastructure project consisted of a diversion on the Rio Grande, facilities for removing sediment, booster stations and water pump stations, and 50km of raw and finished water pipelines. The implementation, construction, operation and maintenance of the BDD, which started operating in 2011, are overseen by the BDD board.

However, ongoing problems with the facility have meant that the board which oversees the project has now hired lawyers to look at who should pay for the repairs and who is responsible, with a contingency fund of around £638,000 set aside for legal costs. The board consists of the City of Santa Fe, Santa Fe County and the private community of Las Campanas.

BDD facilities director Charles M.Vokes told New Civil Engineer: “Since the facilities were placed in operation in 2011, there have been a number of unforeseen equipment issues within the raw water delivery system that are a concern to BDD.

“The board and staff are committed to proactively implementing measures to assess and make the necessary repairs to this system. These include hiring of an engineering firm to conduct assessments of the system and the hiring of legal counsel to investigate recovery of expenditures and pursue accountability for the equipment repairs.”

A summary of CH2M Hill’s investigations into the problem were quoted in a memo from Volker to the board in June 2015. The summary said: “It is our opinion that there are many factors that contributed to the operational problems experienced at the diversion structure. The damage to the screens was caused by blockage of the screens which could not be removed with the air burst. In addition, the flexible fittings to the screen and floor burst systems became damaged resulting in uncontrolled releases of air which in combination with the blockage resulted in the pressures that was greater than any conceivable design condition.”

Volker’s memo added that both CDM Smith and CH2M Hill said the problems were not down to their work but due to unforeseeable and/or unanticipated conditions that occurred during the BDD’s operation. None of the problems have had any impact on the quality of the water supply to the local population.

A statement from CH2M Hill to New Civil Engineer said: “We and our joint venture partner are currently in discussions with the city/county board. We’re proactively working together to resolve the matter in the interests of all stakeholders.”

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