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A Tall Order



With lives literally on the line, the Oroville Emergency Spillway project was short on time and long on importance for residents along Northern California’s Feather River. In record time, Kiewit Corporation managed not only to get the job done in an expeditious and environmentally sound way, they may have learned the secret to efficient project acceleration, no short cuts necessary.


You get that “Mission: Impossible” vibe just reading about the project. The numbers — 10 days to bid, 165 days to build — create tension and excitement as your eyes take them in and your brain does the math. And considers the scope.

• 35,000 cubic yards of demolition
• 500,000 cubic yards of excavation

A crew of hundreds on double shifts, six days a week. Sometimes seven. Like ants preparing for winter, they work relentlessly atop the nation’s tallest dam as the clock ticks down to rainy season.

“Probably the most significant thing about the job is how fast it started, how fast we had to mobilize,” says Jeff Petersen, vice president, senior operations manager for the Nebraska-based Kiewit Corporation, which took home not one, but two AGC Build America Awards — one in the Environmental Enhancement category and the other: the coveted Grand.

Touching on each aspect of the award’s criteria — projects that embody safety, project management and partnering excellence, among other notable areas — the exceedingly complex Oroville Spillway project came in under budget and on time, soaring over hurdles toward completion. It was a phenomenally successful project.

One that got its start with an epic fail.


The order came down from the Butte County Sheriff: mandatory evacuation for 180,000 people living in the area around Oroville, just north of Sacramento.

Rain had been heavy — not unusual for that time of year — and so as Lake Oroville’s levels began to rise, officials did what was expected, opening the spillway at the Oroville Dam.

“The spillway developed some failure spots,” says Petersen, tactfully describing the massive crater that opened in the spillway’s concrete chute. Water was slowed, but permitted to keep flowing — the reservoir levels were still rising. This further eroded the surrounding area.

“That led them to try using the emergency spillway,” says Petersen, “which also had serious problems.”

Built in 1967, the emergency spillway had never even been used.

“The primary spillway essentially self-destructed under use,” Petersen explains, “which is what led to the mass evacuation of towns along the Feather River below.”

A temporary repair was made. Subject matter experts were gathered. A plan was put in place and a handful of contractors, Kiewit among them, were invited to competitively bid. They had 10 days to get it in place.

“They took the bid the Saturday of Easter weekend, they awarded the contract the following Monday, they gave us notice to proceed on Friday and we had 30 days from then to assemble about a hundred staff and 200-300 craft to start that first month.”

Within a short amount of time, the number ramped up to 800.

“We got all the equipment mobilized and it was a very quick start to get everything underway.”


By the time they were underway, locals were safely back in their homes, but staying on top of such matters on a uniquely hazardous jobsite was challenging.

An incredibly steep hillside, temperatures that at times soared past 100 degrees and an exhausting pace of round-the-clock shifts were just a few factors. “We had quite a team focused on safety,” says Petersen, “and we finished at close to a million man-hours with no recordable injuries.”

Even with daunting safety issues (sunscreen and thousands of gallons of water were made available to workers to ensure hydration and UV protection — sun shades, too, dotted the work site), Petersen still believes the pace was the ultimate challenge.

“Just getting a team together of people who largely didn’t know one another and working that efficiently,” he marvels, “it was a feat. We had people with at least some experience doing similar work in other parts of the country, key players who had worked on similar jobs.”

Having that knowledge already on-hand, says Petersen, was a big part of getting things done on time — though he notes the date for completion on the concrete was shaved down by a month once things were underway.

“And at the same time, work is being added,” he says, likening this sort of construction to dentistry. “If you’ve got a cavity, you don’t really know where the bottom of the hole is ‘til you get there.” He chuckles. “Once you’re out of the ground with a building, it’s all kind of the same, regardless of the size and scope and logistics.”

Oroville started with excavation. Getting down to the bedrock was among the first steps.

“And it took a lot longer to get there than anybody could have imagined, which is where the growth in the scope of work was. We had to make the hole bigger. And once the hole was bigger, we had to get it filled back up in order to open the spillway for the first season.”


Cliché as it sounds, it was the Oroville Emergency Spillway project’s teamwork that made the dream work.

“We had brought together individuals with a level of knowledge that meant we didn’t have to start from scratch, from a place where none of us had ever done anything like this before,” Petersen explains, “and working together with client and the engineers, we came up with solutions to help finalize the design, working together, we were able to do it all better, faster, stronger.”

Winning two AGC awards, says Petersen, is nothing less than phenomenal.

“And humbling,” he says.

When he sees video, or reunites with teammates on the site for an owner meeting, the most pervasive memory is that of their first day.

The tremendous crater, the strength of Mother Nature, of flowing water. There was no shortage of awe.

“That cavity, how massive it looked,” he says with a bit of wonder. “Daunting would be a word many people would use. ‘Do you really think we can get this done?’”

They attacked Phase 1 with determination, getting it done.

“The second season was even more work in the same amount of time, but we had the advantage of bringing the same team back together, and they’d studied over the winter, and figured out new ways to improve operations to make things go even better.”

It went so well, in fact, so swiftly, that the ghost of Oroville has since been resurrected when slowdowns on jobs with schedules far more merciful beg questions: why can’t we get heavy infrastructure built more quickly, more efficiently?

“It’s been brought up a couple of times,” says Petersen. “Why can’t we just do it like Oroville — where everybody comes together?”

He acknowledges the money spent on acceleration, on overtime, but still wonders how they can apply similar tactics to yield similar results. “The job was big,” he says, “but we do a lot of large projects. The thing about this one was speed. It was all about the speed in which it was procured, started and ramped up.”

Those numbers, though.

• 500 units of equipment and 100 staffers mobilized in eight weeks
• 138,000 cubic yards of structural concrete (“enough to build a 5.5-foot-wide sidewalk from Sacramento to Los Angeles,” as KIEWAYS magazine put it).
• 4,000 pounds of fruit (Hey, a hardworking crew’s gotta eat.)

In the end, says Petersen, the greatest thing about this project — aside from helping ensure the safety of those living in the shadow of the dam — is how the team coalesced.

“It demonstrates that when you put the right people together, you can accomplish some pretty amazing things with everybody working on the same goal in the same direction,” he says with pride.

And they forged more than just a feat of modern engineering. They made memories. “The friendships and professional relationships that we built over the couple years that this project took place? They’re priceless.”