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Contractors are meeting a high backlog of water and wastewater work from both federal and private clients as funds trickle toward long overdue projects, which range from small upgrades to large-scale system overhauls and new facilities for expanding communities. Contractors are having to pace themselves—and their workforce—to bid on and execute a wide variety of jobs.

According to the American Water Works Association, $1 trillion is necessary to maintain and expand service to meet U.S. water demands during the next 25 years. While that level of funding is unlikely to get released in the near future, economic investment in the environmental public works sector continues to trend upward. Construction spending rose 7 percent in 2018 and is expected to jump another 6 percent to $41.7 billion in 2019, according to Dodge Data & Analytics’ 2019 Construction Outlook.

To put it simply: “Everybody is really busy right now,” says Joe Barbone, president of Methuen Construction, Plaistow, New Hampshire, a self-perform general contractor that has been in the heavy utility and municipal contracting business for more than 50 years. 

Methuen is more than halfway complete on one of its most complex jobs to date—the $75 million wastewater treatment expansion and upgrade of the Peirce Island Wastewater Treatment Plant for the city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, which will dramatically increase the peak capacity of that plant to 22 million gallons per day (gpd). It is the largest public works project in the city’s history.

Because of the limited geographic footprint of the island, Methuen’s specialists, together with AECOM’s engineering team, needed to get creative to install process tanking, piping and treatment equipment—plus support buildings—about three stories above grade, when typically these systems would exist below or at grade. 

The completed project will include a new filter building with a biologically aerated/anoxic filter; a new headworks building with a garage, electrical room, IT room and control room; and a new solids building so the existing one can be re-purposed as a laboratory. All construction occurred while the plant remained operational.

Aging infrastructure abounds in Massachusetts, providing a seemingly endless stream of opportunities (and challenges). Methuen has ongoing work at the city of Haverhill’s water treatment plant, where it’s installing new chemical feed systems, a dissolved air floatation clarification system, and sand and carbon filters with automatic backwash systems. It’s also constructing a fourth anaerobic digester at the Greater Lawrence Sanitary District facility in North Andover along with upgrades to the primary water pumps, which, when completed, will increase overall peak capacity to 165 million gpd and process approximately 92,000 gallons of organics per day to heat and power the wastewater treatment facility.  

In new construction, Methuen is currently building a pump station for the city of Worcester that can handle peak flows of up to 5.7 million gpd; plus, it built the Long Pond Water Treatment Plant in Falmouth that handles 8.4 million gpd.

Suburbs and Exerbs 

These projects have one thing in common: increasing residential development that expands in a radius from city centers, such as Boston.  

“I’m seeing more folks moving out of urban areas and commuting into the cities, and as they do that, some of those more rural areas are increasing their population and need to upgrade and expand their infrastructure to handle the additional building and influx of people,” Barbone says. 

American Contracting & Environmental Service, Inc., Columbia, Maryland, can attest. ACE is handling a heavy load of projects for the greater Washington, D.C., area, where a backlog of work results from aging infrastructure. 

One of those projects is a $15.6 million closed loop system of improvements for the Mattawoman Wastewater Treatment Plant in Charles County, Maryland, where ACE is performing a complete rehab of the combined influent/effluent pumping station, with teams working double shifts to stay ahead of schedule.  
“It’s in a state of disrepair. It’s probably 40 to 50 years old,” says Executive Vice President Joe Godin, who has been with ACE since its very beginning in 2003 and has helped the company grow into a specialized firm that focuses almost exclusively on this sector.

“We basically have to bypass pump 45 million gallons of water a day. While we’re doing that, we are rehabilitating the effluent pumping station, and then we will do a complete gut and replacement of all the equipment, piping and everything in the influent pumping station to bring it up to date.”

ACE has a reputation for being a key player on jobs that require some creative problem-solving, as exemplified in its work at DC Water’s massive Blue Plains Water Treatment Facility. The contractor works for the owner’s “High Priority Group,” meaning it handled critical repairs and difficult work assignments—three lump sum mini-projects with 105 separate task orders—during the project’s four-year Phase 3 Upgrade. 

Many of the tasks required design-build construction when a design solution was not already in place to handle unknowns. 

In addition, ACE is currently in the preconstruction phase for Eastern Correctional Institution’s wastewater treatment plant upgrade in Somerset County. The $17 million project for Maryland Environmental Service will increase the plant’s flow to .9 mgd and improve the effluent to virtually drinking water quality. 

“We are working with the engineering consultant KCI and the owner to come up with a guaranteed max price for the project,” Godin says. “As our first major construction manager at-risk project, it’s really gone well, with a collaborative and cooperative environment among all the stakeholders, which is going to result in a really successful job.” 

The company is also knee deep into the Annapolis WRF Dewatering Facilities project for Anne Arundel County, Maryland, which requires a complete rehabilitation of the existing dewatering building, a new truck load facility and a new gravity thickener. All work has been completed while maintaining uniterrupted operations of the existing dewatering operation.  

Workforce and Technology

Finding the workers to keep up with the large backlog of work is the No. 1 challenge contractors are facing in this sector. 

“It’s in crisis mode. The entire construction industry is reeling from the lack of skilled workers, or lack of any workers for that matter. It’s a huge challenge right now,” Barbone says. 

“We’re pulling out all of the stops in terms of recruiting and training. We have given up on trying to find ‘skilled’ workers; we just want workers with good work ethics and good attitudes to work cooperatively in a team environment and communicate effectively. We will train them with the skills that we need,” he says.

Methuen has an in-house apprenticeship program, a leadership development program and its own “Methuen U,” a formalized management training program that prepares less experienced engineers to take on increased roles and responsibilities in the office and the field.   

With 150 employees, ACE has a full-time talent director that works constantly to recruit and educate future leaders, and it partners with Associated Builders and Contractors’ Baltimore Metro Chapter on a work-to-hire program that attracts high school students to pique their interest in construction (specifically water and wastewater) before they’ve committed to another career. One student from the program recently joined the ACE team full time after graduation. 

“When you come to work here, it’s not just for one job experience; it’s for the duration of a career,” Godin says. “It’s about identifying young adults early before they’ve made that career decision and showing them that general contracting is a good career, that you can make some good money, and that you can be just as successful as the other trades.”  

Keeping up with technology helps, especially for contractors such as ACE that take on more design control. 

For example, ACE has used BIM and LiDAR scans for at least five projects—tools that are especially valuable to ensure the drawings match up with reality in plants that have been rehabbed by various stakeholders over the years. It’s also incorporating ground penetrating radar to help model underground conditions. 

“With these models, you get the real nitty gritty of what is actually out there,” Godin says. “We mainly use it for clash coordination among the trades to ensure the MEP trades are coordinated with the structural components. It helps us solve problems ahead of time before they become major issues, and then we can safely hand off the models to our field people for their visualization efforts.”

Contractors in a traditional design-bid-build environment often face the challenge of incomplete or inadequate drawings before the project even gets in their hands.   

“Typically, if you are competing for work strictly on a price basis, you have to build what’s on the drawings. And if the drawings aren’t complete or don’t take into account all of the design challenges, those issues have to be wrestled to the ground during the construction phase, and you have to resolve them without changing the end date,” Barbone says. 

But by being a trusted partner and breaking out of silos to solve problems, these challenges can be overcome.  

“With rehabs and retrofits of existing plants, we try to build a strong relationship and work very closely with the owner and in particular, the plant operators. They know the inner workings of that plant better than anybody,” Barbone continues. “Working together, we are able to recommend or propose changes in sequencing or bring in temporary treatment systems to allow us to expedite construction in certain areas of the plant sooner, rather than waiting for other systems to go online before we move to another part of the facility and start construction there.”

And of course, it’s always important to stay on time and on budget.

“By getting innovative with re-sequencing the work, we look for ways to shorten the duration of the project, which saves everybody money.”  

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