Central Valley

Hetch Hetchy pipeline project promises jobs in valley

The way is clear for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to make improvements to its Hetch Hetchy water pipelines in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties, and that's expected to give a boost to the construction trades in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

This week, the agency that supplies water to San Francisco and other Bay Area residents certified environmental studies and approved $180 million in pipeline improvements in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties.

The work will include upgrades to the three pipelines running through the Modesto area, which transport water from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park to the Bay Area, and construction of 11 miles of new pipeline from western Stanislaus County to a point west of Interstate 580 in San Joaquin County.

The Bay Area agency needs to upgrade a "crossover" facility in the Hetch Hetchy right of way in Riverbank, with the work to start in November, and plans to build two other crossover facilities in eastern and western Stanislaus County. These facilities allow the Bay Area agency to divert water from one pipeline to another, so maintenance can be done without stopping water flow.

In addition, about 6.5 miles of pipeline from western Tuolumne County to Emery Road east of Oakdale will be replaced, and work began in May on a $112 million water treatment plant outside Tracy.

All that work through 2013 is expected to give paychecks to more than 2,000 people in the heavy equipment, carpentry, pipefitting, painting, concrete, electrical, masonry, trucking and other trades.

The Bay Area agency says it's committed to employing local craft workers and offering opportunities to disadvantaged residents, as well as requiring contractors to use subcontracting firms in the Hetch Hetchy territory, which stretches from the Bay Area to the valley and the Sierra.

"We work closely with our contractors and the unions to make sure we are employing, the best we can, people who are unemployed in the local community," said Carol Isen, director of labor relations and community programs with the San Francisco PUC.

The commission also said it's working with the Construction Craft Training Center and other programs to create work opportunities for young and disadvantaged workers.

Local government and union leaders in the valley believe it's a sincere commitment.

"It is probably going to be almost all union labor," said Leroy Ornellas, a San Joaquin County supervisor from Tracy. "It is a lot of good-paying jobs at a time when we need it."

Union official: Jobs needed

Bill Taylor, business manager for Plumbers and Pipefitters Union 442 in Modesto, said the jobs are sorely needed. About 30 percent of the unit's 700 members are not working.

"In the last four months, it has really crashed on us," Taylor said. "We had several meetings with (the manager of the water projects) and he is pretty adamant about using local people."

Taylor expects that 75 to 100 members of the unit will work on projects such as the Tracy-area treatment plant and the Roselle crossover facility in Riverbank. Journeymen pipefitters earn $34.50 an hour and apprentices $15.50 to $31 an hour.

David Thomas, secretary-treasurer of the San Joaquin Building Trades Council, said, "The way it's set up, they will be drawing from the hiring halls in each of the counties. There will be job sites from the Hetch Hetchy (reservoir) to the Bay Area."

The pipeline improvements are part of a $4.4 billion plan to improve the safety and reliability of San Francisco's water supply. More than 80 projects are planned in Bay Area counties, as well as Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Tuolumne counties.

An initial proposal for a fourth pipeline from Hetch Hetchy across the valley ran into opposition from environmental groups and the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts because it involved taking as much as 35 million gallons a day from the Tuolumne River. The commission eventually dropped plans to take more water in favor of increased conservation and development of water sources in the Bay Area.

The projects approved this week will make it easier to maintain pipelines that are 46 to 73 years old and to perform rehabilitation on the system, said Chris Nelson, the commission's San Joaquin Valley project manager.

Thomas is expecting things to pick up for the construction trades in the area, which are in the worst downturn he's seen since 1993. Along with the pipeline work, several energy and public infrastructure projects should boost employment in 2010, he said.

For information about the San Francisco PUC's local business enterprise program, go to http://sfwater.org/msc_main. cfm/MC_ID/35/MSC_ID/394.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or 578-2321.