Waterworks Project Wins the Civil Engineering Prize

Sometimes, true feats of civil engineering happen where you can’t see them.

Last year, the winner of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ top honor, the Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement Award, went to the Dragon Bridge, Vietnam’s longest suspension bridge, designed to look like a dragon. But not all feats of civil engineering are quite as dazzling. In fact, some have a profound impact while being all but invisible to the public eye.

Case in point: This year’s award went to the San Diego County Water Authority’s Emergency and Carryover Storage Project. The project beat out several highly visible, high profile finalists, including the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport (India’s second busiest airport), One World Trade Center and Connecticut's Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) no doubt recognized that the wining project provided outstanding public benefits in the most important infrastructure sector of all: clean water.

Most of San Diego's water supply is sourced from Northern California and the Colorado River. The water authority’s undertaking, which began in 2000, involved retrofitting much of its water supply network in order to store and protect an emergency supply of water for the region to use if those deliveries are disrupted by droughts or earthquake damage.

The extensive work included new dams, pipelines and pump stations and a record-setting dam raise performed on the San Vicente concrete gravity dam, built in 1943. By adding 117 vertical feet to the dam (the highest ever raise in the United States), the water authority effectively doubled the capacity of the dam’s associated reservoir.

Since the project is many miles away from the San Diego metro area and much of it is underground or underwater, it could easily go unnoticed by the three million people it serves, which ASCE President Norma Jean Mattei called “sad.”

This wasn’t the first time a San Diego water project received the award. In 2013, the Alvarado Water Treatment Plant Ozone Upgrade and Expansion Project won the honor, in part for expanding plant capacity by 67 percent and upgrading treatment processes with ozone and new flocculation and sedimentation basins to improve the taste of the water and lower levels of carcinogenic disinfection by-products.

Technology like flocculation basins and pump stations doesn’t usually get the glory. But often, it’s the civil engineering work that happens behind the scenes that matters most.