The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has the expertise and organization necessary to properly execute a massive series of improvements to the area’s aging water infrastructure, according to an external review presented today.

In 2002, the SFPUC began a $4.6-billion Water System Improvement Project aimed at repairing, replacing or seismically upgrading the dams, tunnels, reservoirs, pump stations, pipelines and other mechanisms that bring water to the Bay Area from the Hetch Hetchy Valley.

The agency, which supplies water to 2.5 million Bay Area residents, hired an independent, five-person panel of engineers from across the country to review the plan as the SFPUC shifts its focus from planning stages to construction.

Panel chair Russell Stepp told the commission today that it has made remarkable progress in managing the largest project in its history.

“These aren’t typical programs to undertake for utilities,” he said. “They really have the capability here to implement a program of this type. It’s quite a dramatic change since 2002.”

When the SFPUC began planning the list of more than 80 projects, spanning seven counties, “there was a willingness but a lack of capability,” Stepp said.

“Back then there really weren’t a lot of people who had this level of experience,” he said.

In addition to declaring the SFPUC capable of handing such a large project, Stepp and his panel issued a series of recommendations to help keep the work on track.

Julie Labonte, the improvement project manager, said many of the recommendations deal with the construction phase, which makes up 70 percent of the program’s cost. Most of the large regional projects in the plan are currently transitioning from planning to construction, she said.

Top priorities include creating a risk management program and creating an independent auditing panel to visit construction sites, she said. Within six months, the amount of construction being funded could quadruple, she said, so proper management is critical.

The report concludes that SFPUC has the necessary infrastructures, organization, procedures and the business process to tackle such a large project, she said.

“The question is implementation – can we put all of this together and can we manage this program effectively using all these tools? Early on, the indication is yes based on a few projects we have going already,” Labonte said.

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