Otay Water District's Pump Problem

The prodigious thirst of EastLake and other new communities in eastern Chula Vista has prompted the Otay Water District to build a $6 million pump station. According to the district's website, the new EastLake Greens station, at full power, will be able to "fill a swimming pool in one minute." It has four pumps that draw potable water from the San Diego County Water Authority system and treated raw water from Lower Otay Lake. The water ends up in two five-million-gallon reservoirs near Salt Creek Golf Course, farther east in Chula Vista. To keep the water flowing in case an emergency cuts off its connection to the power grid, the station has its own 2000-kilowatt generator.

The plant's technical name is the "980-2 pump station" because of the pressure zone it is located in (980 refers to the elevation above sea level). "In the past five years," according to the Otay district, "the 980 zone has been the fastest growing area in the district, averaging more than 20 percent growth per year."

Construction of the pump station was slowed by rains last December, Armando Buelna, district spokesman, tells me. Then San Diego Gas and Electric had to redo a power-supply design for the station, according to minutes of the February 1 district board meeting. During the meeting, the water district's chief of development services, Rod Posada, assured board president Jaime Bonilla that there was no cost to the district for the redesign "at this time." Bonilla brought up the project's completion date, originally scheduled for January, then delayed a month. Posada was already speaking of a mid-April completion. He assured Bonilla, however, that the district would "still be a couple of months ahead of the scheduled need" in early summer.

Later in the meeting President Bonilla gave district staff a lecture. "He stated that he gets very concerned when deadlines are not met," according to meeting minutes. "He indicated that though it was discussed today that there would be no impact to the 980-2 pump station running a little behind schedule...he would like to see the district complete projects when they are scheduled to be completed. He recommended that staff try to keep a close eye on projects and deadlines to possibly avoid delays."

On May 11, almost a month past the mid-April completion date, according to documents obtained by the Reader, the Otay district held its 42nd and last "construction progress meeting." In attendance were district employees and representatives of three contractors working on the 980-2 station project: Spiess Construction, Richard Brady and Associates, and Neal Electric. Spiess in 2004 had won the primary contract for the job, Richard Brady was the project-management company, and Neal Electric was the electrical contractor. In addition, Neal had subcontracted some work to Square D, a subsidiary of Schneider Electric. Square D was to work on the gear that automatically activates the station's own generator in the case of a main-grid power loss.

Included in the minutes of the May 11 meeting is a list of 11 "critical items." One states that "the switchgear does not have the required manual switch/exercise selector switch per the specifications. A non-compliance report was sent to the contractor for action. (Action: Neal)." Another reads, "When power goes down, all power is lost on the distribution switchgear. A non-compliance report was sent to the contractor for action. (Action: Neal)." And a third complains that "everything needs to have the same phase rotation. A non-compliance report was sent to the contractor for action. (Action: Neal)."

The minutes then specify an "original contract completion date" of January 3, 2006, and a "revised contract completion date" of May 25, 2006. And they identify "retention [of money held by the customer until all work is done] to date" of $301,755.

On its website, the Otay district announces a May 22 "dedication for the recently completed 980-2 pump station in Chula Vista." Spokesman Armando Buelna tells me that he organized the event, which was attended by district directors, local public officials, and representatives of other water districts. "But something embarrassing happened," says Buelna. "Nothing worked when we tried to turn the pumps on. Then one of the engineers said we hadn't turned on the main power switch. After we did that, everything worked fine."

But that is the last time that everything has worked fine, despite a rosy picture painted by Otay Water District's assistant general manager for water operations and engineering, Manny Magaña. In late July, Magaña tells me by phone that the 980-2 pump station is 97 percent complete. "The only things that have to be done are to put in pump seals to prevent water leaks," he says. "We're environment friendly here." When I raise with Magaña possible delays in completion of the pumps' automatic transfer switches, he complains about my pursuing a "negative story," saying that the pump project will only benefit the district's customers. But he does promise to get me an answer about delays of the switching system.

Otay spokesman Buelna calls me with the district's answer. There have been no delays in completion of the automatic transfer switches, says Buelna.

But project manager Richard Brady and Associates had produced a "punch," or final observation, list on June 6. The list indicates that the "automatic transfer scheme" and "softstarts" for the pumps were not yet completed. Softstarts are complex mechanisms that allow amperage in pump motors to ramp up slowly after power is turned on. Without them, since water is incompressible, turning on full power to the motor will cause a "water hammer" effect.

Three days later, Danielle Riker of Richard Brady e-mailed Neal Electric seeking a "commitment for completing the open items" on the punch list. Neal's Sam Passanisi responded on June 13 that the softstarts were finally completed and that the automatic transfer scheme would be completed by mid-July.

On June 29, the day before the end of the district's fiscal year, Otay's development services chief Rod Posada sent an "update" to assistant general manager Manny Magaña. It indicated that a "recommendation for [job] acceptance" had been signed on June 15. Yet it stated that the Square D Company was still designing key functions of the automatic transfer switch. "The design is expected to be complete June 30, with installation early July. This will be handled as a warranty item."

By phone in late July, Richard Brady's Peter Lloyd tells me that finishing work on the pump station is like moving into a new office. "You've got what you need," he says, "but some rearranging needs to be done before you feel like everything's right." Lloyd adds that transferring the power source to the station's generator is not dependent on an automatic system. It can be done manually. I ask him whether he would consider the station to be up and running. "You'll have to ask the district that," he says.

But even the softstart problems were not over. On July 6, Neal Electric's Passanisi tried to get the subcontractor Square D's and the project manager's attention. "What is the status of the service tech to the jobsite?... Please help out! THIS IS HOT. What does it take to get a service rep to the job? Also, we need to get training done. When could this happen?"

On a "project look-ahead schedule" printed on July 12, the water district instructed Spiess Construction to "continue to perform punch list items." A new schedule on July 25 repeated the same instruction and indicated further the need for Square D to conduct training with the district's operations division. When the training took place during the week of July 24 to 28, one pump was not up at all, another pump's softstart did not work, and none of the pumps had functional transfer switching schemes.

A member of the EastLake community familiar with the 980-2 pump station project tells me that the district may still have to spend more of its own money to get everything completed. He wishes to remain anonymous out of fear that his identity might lead to recriminations against district employees he knows. The potential additional expenditures are likely to involve the automatic transfer scheme, which has elaborate software controlling it. Electrical circuit diagrams reveal, according to my source, that what is required to get the scheme running is not merely a warranty repair. "They're still in the engineering design phase," he says. "Those diagrams show them still struggling to design an automatic transfer scheme that will work."

On July 27, employees received an e-mail from Otay Water District general manager Mark Watton announcing a consolidation of "Development Services and Engineering into one department.... I appreciate [chief of engineering Mehdi Arbabian's] professional orientation and wish him the best in all his future endeavors." In an attached e-mail, Arbabian wrote, "We have reached a mutual agreement so I can now seek other opportunities."

Consolidating Arbabian's responsibilities into his own is chief of development services Rod Posada. He's the one who on February 1 assured Otay district board president Bonilla that the 980-2 pump station project, though a little behind schedule, was going swimmingly.

On August 2, according to spokesman Buelna, the district released retention fees to contractors who worked on the pump station project. But according to my source, "More training is still needed, two pumps and an electronic softstart do not work, and the transfer switch is still in the design phase. These are all contract obligations, not warranty issues."

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