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Light at the tunnel's end

A breakthrough expected today in the San Bernardino Mountains will bring a water project closer to completion.

August 20, 2008|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

Even in the world of big-ticket water projects, where delays, cost overruns and controversy are frequent, the inelegantly named Inland Feeder Project was in a class of its own.

In its two decades, the project has faced fire, flood, regulatory disputes, difficult geology, grouting problems, earthquake considerations, a switch of contractors and more. At one point it was $100 million over budget.

The boss at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California jokes that the project suffered everything but a plague of locusts.

Still, the agency insisted it needed a higher-capacity system to bring water from Northern California to its massive reservoir, Diamond Valley Lake, outside Hemet.

A new project manager was brought in three years ago with a simple command: Failure is not an option.

And today, several years behind the original schedule, the $1.2-billion project will complete its last bit of tunneling: a four-mile stretch known as the Arrowhead West Tunnel in the San Bernardino Mountains.

Officials will cheer as an 820-ton, 450-foot tunnel boring machine punches through at Devil Canyon, near Cal State San Bernardino, where the California Aqueduct will eventually connect.

Then it's all downhill, literally. Set for completion in 2010, the 44-mile route includes 16 miles of tunneling in three sections and 28 miles of underground piping that will empty into an already built canal. From there, it will travel 10 miles to Diamond Valley. The idea is this: In the future, water will arrive from the California Aqueduct in fast bursts due to climate change and shifting snow patterns. The smooth, faucet-like flow will become more like blasts from a fire hose.

The current plumbing of the water district system is considered inadequate to capture the volume in such flows for storage. Enter the Inland Feeder, whose engineering is widely admired.

"We'll come up with something better" for a name, water district General Manager Jeff Kightlinger said Monday as he talked to reporters about the promise and the problems of the project.

"We knew it would be tricky," he said. "It was trickier that we thought."

The Arrowhead West Tunnel, between Waterman and Devil canyons, may have been the trickiest.

In 2003, the wildfires that swept through much of Southern California roared over the Waterman construction site, scorching everything in their path. Three months later, a fast-moving mudslide plugged the front of the tunnel with 16 feet of mud and water. Work stopped for months.

No workers were at the site during either disaster, otherwise there would definitely have been fatalities, Kightlinger said. The only death caused by the project came during a shoring accident as pipe was being installed.

At the Arrowhead West Tunnel, the cutter face of the boring machine -- three times as tall as any worker -- grinds relentlessly at the mountain's granite rock, about 90 feet underground.

At top speed, the machine advances a bit over two inches per minute. The tunnel shakes, and the huffing and puffing of the machine fills the tunnel's stuffy air.

Although laser technology helps guide the cutter face, a human operator must apply the right amount of pressure to various locations on the rock face to keep the machine -- and therefore the tunnel -- on course.

"We've been fighting it all the way," said operator Billy Jordan, 41, an employee of the lead contractor, San Bernardino-based Shea/Kenny.

The tunnel is dark, hot and noisy. Seeping water is dripping from the stone walls, a normal occurrence but unnerving to a visitor. It is no place for someone with claustrophobia.

A narrow-gauge train ferries workers and equipment to and fro, whistle blaring to warn people who might be in its path. Workers carry a breathing apparatus on their belts in case of fire.

When bored out, the tunnel is 19 feet in diameter. With concrete liners installed, it shrinks to 12 feet. The miners are veterans of other tunnel projects throughout the country. Each is a jack-of-all-trades, adept at maintaining safety and pushing the project forward.

"It's a great job, something different every day," said James Bowen, 42, who has been working on it for a decade. "You never know what's going to break down."

When the Inland Feeder is done, it will triple the existing system's capability to move water to Diamond Valley. At its maximum, the new pipe could move enough water to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in less than 30 seconds.

The project has been through two major contractors and numerous water district managers.

Longtime water district employee John Bednarski, a civil engineer, was appointed project manager three years ago when major issues arose involving landowners.

"We were asked to look at any and all alternatives to get this done," he said.

In the end, the established plan was determined to be best. Land-use, environmental and engineering issues were resolved, and work resumed.

Through it all, the water district continued serving 18 million people in Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, San Bernardino and Riverside and Ventura counties. The Diamond Valley reservoir serves the entire district with the exception of Ventura County.

Although a machine boring through a mountain at two inches per minute is hardly the stuff of breaking news, the engineering world has celebrated the project for its size and the complexity of its problems.

Some water district workers have been working on it for their entire careers.

"It's one of those things that, as an engineer, you get one shot at," said principal engineer Jay Arabshahi.

tony.perry@latimes.com

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