Civil Engineering: Rethinking Water Projects

Folsom Dam USACE 2004 By Sonia Easaw with Kamal Obeid, PE, S.E. Water storage on a municipal scale in the West used to involve building dams and reservoirs such as the Folsom Dam, which would gush with water from the melting snow of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Now the snowpack is at its lowest measured record, and the water levels of the reservoir may run so low this year that pumps will have to be installed to push water through the dam. Unfortunately, these warming conditions are likely to continue. In response to the “new normal” of drought conditions, the community of civil engineers and local jurisdictions must take a sustainable approach and rethink infrastructure to deal with potential severe water shortages. With the drought looming overhead (and below), here are four examples of water projects throughout the Bay Area and California involving desalination, groundwater recharge, stormwater capture, and recycled water.


Carlsbad desalination plant2 Salt water from the San Francisco Bay has been seeping into the groundwater basins that serve the cities of Alameda County (cities of Fremont, Newark, and Union City). Back in 2003, the Alameda County Water District, or ACWD, built the small Newark Desalination Facility to treat the brackish water. The effort proved fruitful when the plant supplied much-needed water to areas of the County during the drought and saved the ACWD about $4 million dollars a year. The plant uses a reverse osmosis membrane filtration process that requires high-pressure pumps that consume a lot of energy and contribute to additional carbon consumption. The energy-intensive, and therefore, expensive desalination process has also been known to pose a threat to ecosystems--the brine byproduct of desalination (a highly concentrated saltwater solution) can be dangerous to sea life if not properly mixed back into the ocean. Supplying the County with clean water during drought periods was a resulting benefit of the small desalination plant but may not have been the primary reason for why it was built. There are some California jurisdictions, however, that have considered desalination treatment plants as a larger fix for water shortages. A one billion dollar desalination plant will be unveiled in Carlsbad, Calif. in 2016--what will be the largest one in the nation--and will supply San Diego County with seven percent of its water. However, desalination is considered more of last resort after other water conservation methods have been employed.

Groundwater Recharge

Groundwater flow How do you capture and store clean water on a massive scale in a sustainable way? There are many ways of capturing and storing fresh water for municipalities, such as increased stormwater capture, reservoir expansion, or groundwater recharge and storage. A practical alternative to desalination in California is expanding the water supply beneath our feet. This method of recharging groundwater has been found to be much cheaper than other water supply options and offers more local control. Groundwater levels have been declining across the state because of the drought but also because of overuse, and so recharge becomes especially important to replenish the water into the groundwater basins or aquifers. Groundwater recharge can also be a barrier to seawater intrusion and help restore local ecosystems. Some disadvantages to groundwater recharge include the financial costs to local communities though it is cheaper than surface storage or importing water. Also, natural recharge from rain and snow is not as readily available during times of drought, and so artificial recharge is the next option. But where will the water for artificial recharge come from, especially when the surface water from streams and rivers are not at peak-flow? Alternative water sources for groundwater recharge include treated wastewater, runoff from agricultural uses, and past stormwater capture. Alameda Creek in Niles Canyon 2626 Alameda County Water District (ACWD) considers recharge as a top priority for groundwater management. With the help of inflatable dams, water from the Alameda Creek is diverted into Quarry Lakes Regional Recreation Area for groundwater recharge. Rubber Dam No. 1 was installed back in 1971, and its fabric membrane was recently replaced this summer. The dam structure was upgraded to increase capacity (a project on which Landtech Consultants served as structural engineer of record).

Stormwater Capture

Tank Baustelle 2010 It may seem as if never rains in California, especially during drought years. But, stormwater is a good potential source of water that if captured and stored properly will be a valuable addition to water reserves. Los Angeles County adopted new rules in June 2015 for stormwater capture and reuse, which could serve as a model for the rest of the State. Though there is regulation monitoring the pollution of stormwater that flows into drains, the idea of capturing rainwater for reuse in California is a relatively new one. Rainwater harvesting supports a sustainable method of water management, and has been successful in other parts of the world such as Australia.

Recycled Water

Recycled water overflow from Aquacycle thickener (6324881971) Recharging groundwater and stormwater capture are necessary measures, but how about increasing water supply in the short term? Los Angeles County is considering additional water obtained through unconventional, though perhaps more sustainable, means. The County is talking with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) about a potential large recycled water programwhich would recycle treated sewage. If it succeeds, it would be one of the biggest programs of its kind. Frequently, treated sewage is flushed back into the Pacific Ocean, but reuse systems can transform the water for other uses such as agricultural irrigation, other irrigation, and fire suppression systems. The Santa Clara Water District already recycles water with the Silicon Valley Advanced Purification Center, the largest plant of its kind in Northern California. The facility receives treated water from a nearby wastewater treatment plant and further purifies the water with advanced techniques such as reverse osmosis, microfiltration, and ultraviolet disinfection. The result is eight million gallons of water. VIEW OF AMERICAN RIVER, SHOWING REMAINS OF OLD FOLSOM DAM, HEADGATES AND CANAL. NEW FOLSOM DAM IS IN THE BACKGROUND - Folsom Powerhouse, Adjacent to American River, HAER CAL,34-FOLSO.V,2-95 (CT) The Bureau of Reclamation, created in 1902, developed the network of the 20th-century water infrastructure of dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts in the West. However, as climate change becomes our new reality, the community of civil engineers and municipalities must rethink water networks for the warming 21st century. Recycling water and recharging groundwater are practical, sustainable, and cost-effective methods and allow for more local control of the water supply. As civil engineers learn new skills to adapt to changing water infrastructure, the entire community can work together to increase California’s future water supply.

Sustainable Development: Invest in a Green Roof?

[caption id="attachment_228" align="alignright" width="300"]800px-CalifAcadamyOfSciAug28-2008img0640 California Academy of Sciences[/caption] By Sonia Easaw & Kamal Obeid, SE, P.E. When you think of sustainable development in the California Bay Area, you may think of CEQA, solar panels, and environmentally-friendly hipsters, but green roofs will probably not come to mind. Though San Francisco has some green infrastructure projects, the Bay Area region lags behind areas such as Washington, D.C., which led the country in 2012 with 1.2 million square feet of new green roofs. There are grand exceptions like Facebook's newest campus in the Bay Area that contains a gigantic roof garden complete with trees, walkways, and sitting areas, or the living roof of the California Academy of Sciences. But is it worth investing in a green roof when building in the Bay Area? First, let’s look at the potential benefits of green roofing.

Benefits of Green Roofs for California

CalifAcadSciRoof 0820Beautiful green roofs are more than just aesthetically pleasing. For example, the living roof atop San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences is made up of 50,000 porous vegetation trays that house an estimated 1.7 million plants, and in turn provide a home for local wildlife such as birds, insects, and other creatures. The green roof also reduces the energy needs for heating and cooling the Academy. Environmentally-responsible owners of many green-roofed buildings enjoy similar benefits such as the following:
  • lower energy costs because the green roof absorbs solar energy and provides excellent insulation;
  • improved local environment;
  • additional space for occupants to garden;
  • efficient use of space in an urban environment;
  • and rainwater harvesting.
You are likely aware of the many benefits that green roofs hold for every city, including cleaner air and water, greener spaces, and healthier communities. For example, the Academy’s green roof captures 100 percent of excess stormwater, thus preventing pollutants in the runoff from getting into the ecosystem. In general, green roofs offer many environmental benefits, including the following:
  • reduce carbon footprints by helping to reverse carbon emissions;
  • provide mechanisms for water conservation and stormwater harvesting;
  • offer landscape-based treatment for stormwater;
  • control and reduces storm peak flows;
  • and cool the local environment.
As mentioned above, some critical benefits that green roofs can provide a drought-stricken California is their ability to harvest water and slow down stormwater runoff. There will be an initial investment the first couple years to irrigate the green roof. However, a rainwater harvesting system built in conjunction with the green roof can divert runoff into tanks for storage, flushing, or irrigation. Now let's take a look at the challenges presented by green roofs.

Challenges of Green Roofs in California

Living Roof A green roof changes the construction and maintenance of a building. Once you introduce a green roof, standards for regular maintenance go up, and waterproofing is especially critical to ensure against leaks. Other wholesale failures include soil erosion, poor drainage, and slope instability. Since a proposed green roof would need saturated soil placed at roof level, significant added weight must be supported by a given building. In seismic zones such as the Bay Area added roof level (top heavy) weights also create a challenge for structural seismic design. All told, when planning a green roof, a significant increase in structural construction cost is to be expected. Last but not least, a green roof will be more expensive than a regular roof, and a thorough cost-benefit analysis would have to be conducted during the planning stages. Some of the cost implications for green roofs include the following:
  • a significant increase in structural construction cost to support the building’s weight and seismic design implications;
  • special waterproofing costs;
  • green roof maintenance costs;
  • and green roof irrigation needs, especially during a dry season.
Emeryville California Stormwater Curb ExtensionTo meet the challenge of the high costs of green roofs and other green infrastructure while dealing with increased stormwater pollution, some cities such as Washington, D.C. have set up a green infrastructure marketplace. Property owners who have green roofs, rain gardens, etc. receive credits they can sell to others who need to offset runoff from their developments. This system is also designed to increase water collection, which would be a great benefit for California. There have not been any general economic incentives for commercial businesses to reduce water usage, but it’s likely in the future that larger consumers of water resources will have to pay more. With the possibility of water rationing, green roofs become more economically appealing for commercial developments. Green roofing is a great and socially responsible idea, especially as commercial businesses are becoming better corporate citizens with sustainable development. However, challenges remain, and it will be interesting to see how Bay Area cities, municipalities, and the private sector work together to make green infrastructure work for everyone. In the meantime, however, there are other "green" ways to get up to code with clean water requirements, such as with bio-retention methods. Perhaps in 50 years sustainable development such as green roofs will become more common in the Bay Area, and not just exist on Facebook's campus or the California Academy of Sciences. Until then, however, it is best to consider both the challenges and benefits on a case-by-case basis before investing in a green roof.

The #1 Sustainable Development Feature for Silicon Valley Tech Companies

By Sonia Easaw, with Kamal Obeid, SE, P.E. Sustainable development for growing high-tech companies in Silicon Valley signifies they meet their present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. But green building is not just a buzzword for Apple, Google, Facebook, and other technology giants--they are incorporating environmentally-friendly features into their new campus developments. However, the number of solar panels or the acres of green space in a new campus is not as important as the impact the development has on the surrounding community. Community-oriented development, or the creation of vibrant communities, is the number one sustainable development feature for new technology company developments. Silicon Valley is privileged to be home to three of the biggest technology companies in the world: Apple in Cupertino, Google in Mountain View, and Facebook in Menlo Park. The most important factor to the surrounding communities, however, is whether the new tech campuses are developed with the future of community in mind.

Fitting Into the Community: New Apple, Google, and Facebook Campuses

Norman Foster - Apple Campus 2 Rendering 05.jpg Apple Inc., the largest company in the world, changed the face of the city of Cupertino, CA. Now they're building a new spaceship-like campus in town, and residents will embrace thousands of new technology workers when the project finishes at the end of 2016. Residents and city leaders, though eager to welcome such growth, are concerned about Apple’s new campus’ potential impact on traffic and local charm. Apple said it would help alleviate increased traffic around the new site, and the City plans to improve pedestrian and bike paths. The City has also set aside more room for housing, by state regulation. But some residents do not like the added burden of growth in the town, and any expansion beyond Apple’s growth has generated backlash. In May 2015, the Cupertino City Council voted to restrict office expansion (except near Vallco Shopping Mall) amid community concerns about the impact of growth on traffic, schools, green spaces, and public transit. Google's New Headquarters: Google rending new campus Early in May, Google made its ambitious expansion plans known to the city of Mountain View, but the City Council rejected most of them. In late May, Google again filed plans, but this time for a project that was not a part of their original proposal. They are planning to construct a translucent domed headquarters on a site they acquired rights to before the City set limits on office expansion in the North Bayshore district. This is a district where thousands of technology workers travel to for jobs at Google, LinkedIn, Intuit, Microsoft, and other places. Google promises to ease City worries of increased traffic congestion by moving people around the district through biking and walking. The plans for the new building includes a publicly accessible nature path that will cut across the giant dome and connect pedestrians and bicyclists. But the City desires a holistic development plan that ties in housing, retail, offices, and public transit, and will hold community meetings this summer to help sort out how Google fits in. Facebook's Menlo Park Campus: [caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="640"] By Austin McKinley (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons[/caption]Facebook's newest campus in Menlo Park opened its doors in March and contains a nine-acre green roof, with a half-mile walking loop and 400 full-grown trees. The roof also has WiFi and whiteboards outside so employees can enjoy the California climate and work out-of-doors. But with its burgeoning size, Facebook knows the importance of connection with the community.  The City of Menlo Park’s vision is for mixed-use land development with publicly accessible housing, retail, and a hotel, all of which Facebook supports. Facebook executives also want to take advantage of trails, a railway easement, and a tunnel to better connect their campuses and the surrounding Menlo Park neighborhood. Apple, Google, and Facebook each realize that the surrounding community will be significantly affected by development. The shift from insular Silicon Valley campuses to those that simultaneously create vibrant communities within and around them is what every Bay Area city wants. Incorporating a city’s vision for community-oriented building will be the best way to go forward in the future, and is the number one sustainable development feature for every new Silicon Valley technology company.    

New Fremont Land Development–Civil Engineering Perspective

[caption id="attachment_199" align="alignright" width="300"]Fremont Warm Springs BART station[/caption] By Kamal Obeid, SE, P.E. with Sonia Easaw Fremont, CA is going from a suburban community to a thriving, well-planned urban city--fast. I have been practicing engineering in Fremont since 1987 and have seen its remarkable transformation over the years. To be sure, even within the last few years, there was the NUMMI plant closure, then the advent of Tesla Motors Inc., and now the upcoming completion of the BART extension to South Fremont at the end of this year. From a land planning perspective, we are looking at a new face of Fremont development: more community-oriented than isolated industrial uses.

Land Use

The Fremont industrial expansion has been in the news, especially with Tesla leasing the old Solyndra building earlier this month. Nathan Donato-Weinstein of Silicon Valley Business Journal has aptly called the growing area of industrial tenants in South Fremont “Manufacturing Row” in a recent article. Fremont City Planning has invested significant resources in planning studies for the area. In general, we have seen a confluence of activity and interest in the area because of the new technology boom and the connection to the regional transportation hub (BART). South Fremont is a highly sought after area for companies that are interested in a great place to work and live for their employees. As far as Fremont is concerned, we see the transformation of the city with the development of a critical mass that will change the city forever.

Takeovers and Transitions

Fremont has seen its share of changes; some of the biggest being the closure of the NUMMI auto plant back in 2010 and the Solyndra failure in 2011. But the closure of NUMMI may have been the best thing for Fremont, and the City has bounced back from the solar panel manufacturing firm disaster. With Tesla leasing the last available Solyndra plant earlier this month, Fremont can now officially bring that chapter to a close. As much as the loss of NUMMI was a shock to the community, the gain of Tesla has been an incredible breakthrough. Fremont's route into higher technology, research, and innovation makes the area a trendsetter. Not too long ago, and before Tesla, Fremont was blemished by the Solyndra fiasco. That is now almost forgotten.

Fremont no longer “industrial” in the old sense of the word

Currently, the number of people who come to work in Fremont equals the population that lives there. The planned transit-oriented development of Fremont’s Warm Springs Innovation District will offer housing, employment, and retail choices to more people working in Fremont. The Warm Springs District is expected to bring 20,000 new jobs to Fremont by the year 2040. We are looking at a technology R&D expansion rather than industrial in the old sense of the word. The new face of development from the planning and engineering perspective is more community-oriented than isolated to industrial uses. Community-oriented development means a more mixed use of the land for people to live and work, as well as pedestrian-oriented, bicycle-friendly, and more sustainable in general. For any project within the area, the designer must be cognizant of the larger planning goals.

Fremont CA New Construction: Structural and Regulatory Issues

By Kamal Obeid, SE, P.E., with Sonia Easaw [caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="290"]Fremont, CA - satellite image, NASA Fremont, CA. Image by NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons[/caption]South Fremont, Calif., also known as the Warm Springs District, is one of the few unique places  in the Bay Area with available land for commercial use, especially for research and development, or R&D projects. It is characterized by a few large vacant parcels of land, and underutilized land, but is also home to advanced manufacturing companies and R&D companies such as Tesla Motors and Thermo Fisher Scientific. However, as might be expected for development in the heart of the Bay Area, a thorough project planner would need to consider the regulatory issues and site constraints during the initial project investigation. Among these critical issues, at least three essential questions should be answered:
  • Does land-use/ local planning regulation support my project?
  • Is there sufficient project infrastructure to serve the proposed facility?
  • What environmental impact restrictions exist for the site?

Land-Use/Planning Issues

Warm Spring’s, or South Fremont’s, land-use policies are guided by a City leadership vision for a well planned mixed-use district, or a mix of commercial-related uses as well as residential uses. The City’s goal is to promote the development of a vibrant community with a mindful focus on a sustainable future. Fremont's land history was defined by its agricultural past and location in the southeastern portion of the Bay Area. It has evolved from an agricultural community to a diverse city with land uses including housing, open space, industry, and commerce. It is a large city that stretches about 90 square miles, but over half of this area is located in the Hills, Baylands, or Bay, and is wisely designated as open space. The remaining portion of the City, although  largely developed, is interspersed with few large parcels of vacant underutilized land. Therefore, development in Fremont over the next 20-25 years will largely consist of infill projects on under-utilized parcels in areas planned for redevelopment. The Warm Spring District’s Community Plan contains planning areas that specify the locations and boundaries of various land use mixes and intensities according to transit proximity, adjoining uses, and the desired types of development in that particular location. There are eight land uses such as Industrial, Research & Development, or Residential that embody the desired mix of uses (Mix A to Mix D). For example, Mix A allows for industrial and R&D use to provide for the optimum setting of advanced manufacturing, production, and research. The City of Fremont's General Plan guides overall land development decisions for the City and includes elements such as sustainability, community character, and economic development. Ultimately, the City will be looking to implement land-use policies that optimize the remaining development potential for well-planned growth on underutilized land according to the overall Bay Area mass transit plan. Along with the eight land uses mentioned above for the Warm Springs Community Plan, there are land use standards and factors that establish baseline minimum and maximum development and parking standards to meet regional and City goals. These land use standards include minimum site area, maximum parking, and minimum building intensity. The General Plan and the Warm Springs / South Fremont Community  Plan designate where new growth, infill, or redevelopment can occur, and by understanding the nuances of the desired and permitted uses for a specific piece of land, the successful project planner can make a more informed decision about a given project’s feasibility.

Sufficient Infrastructure

As is common practice, before a land developer acquires a piece of property, one of the first due diligence tasks is to determine whether the land has adequate infrastructure to serve the envisioned project. Infrastructure includes roadways, facilities, and utilities for site service. Infill site development may be as challenging and sometimes more challenging than developing on vacant land because of site-constraints. Redevelopment of previously improved land, in addition to being burdened with the hard costs of demolition, may be also burdened with far-reaching issues related to impact to surrounding uses and possible environmental constraints. In many instances what appears to be adequate infrastructure on the surface, may prove to be inadequate upon a more detailed investigation of the site. For example, if the planned facility creates more traffic that could adversely impact the neighboring facilities, then a traffic study and possible mitigating street improvements must be considered for the project. By and large, local governments in the Bay Area and Fremont specifically have allocated significant resources to planning and studies of specific areas that they are interested in redeveloping. As such, and as is typical of areas within Specific or Community Plans, a wealth of information is usually available for a project developer to assist with a specific site investigation. However, relying on readily available information, may in some instances fall short of formulating a full understanding of the infrastructure needs for a specific project. In short, a comprehensive site study that looks deeper into the needs of a given project is an absolute necessity for a successful feasibility analysis of a particular project.

Environmental Issues:

For sites that fall within a Community Plan, the local government as part of the planning process would conduct a general Environmental Study of the lands within the plan. In certain cases however, a specific project may still warrant additional environmental studies per the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). It is important to note that a CEQA study is not simply limited to environmental impact issues involving the obvious environmental issues such wildlife, birds and other biological or ecological resources, but also includes any potential impact of the project on the community. Such impacts may include, to name a few, issues such as traffic, water resources, pollution, noise, cultural resources, historic character and any issue that impacts the community at large. An environmental study of such a general nature must involve a public process in the form on an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) process. It is likely that projects that fit the uses within a well-developed community plan will not require an EIR, because such a study would have been done as part of the planning process. But certain limited studies of specific issues of concern may be required. Such limited studies are administrative in nature and are done at the staff level. Within 5 years, the Warm Springs District of Fremont, CA should have much of the planned public infrastructure in place, with a new transit station and residential communities occupying the area. Within 10 years, the Warm Springs area will be even better developed, with supportive retail and hotel establishments and renovation, expansion, and new construction in the older industrial areas. Finally, by the year 2035, the City hopes South Fremont to have a rejuvenated industrial section and be fully urbanized with new office buildings and users, and advanced R&D and manufacturing companies. Because of its special geographic and strategic location, the area is an ideal place for technology and research and development companies to locate.

3 Tips About Finding a Bay Area Structural Engineer

structural_9_18_small-1 There are many qualified structural engineers in the Bay Area, but how do you determine which engineer or engineering firm is well suited for your large-scale project? You should begin by clearly defining your project goals and scope of work, and then find an engineer who can help you achieve your vision. Here are some recommendations about what kind of service you should look for from a Bay Area structural engineer. Read more

When is a California SWPPP or Bay Area Stormwater Management Plan Required?

218px-Silt_fence_EPA This December has been the wettest month for San Jose  in 60 years. What does that mean for you as a Bay  Area property owner who is looking to start your construction project, especially during the rainy season? Any active construction site that typically disturbs more than 1 acre of land is legally required to have a SWPPP, or stormwater pollution prevention plan. A property owner is held responsible for violations to stormwater pollution requirements and can be subject to substantial fees and penalties. Read more

Bay Area Seismic Retrofit: Did it Work in the South Napa Earthquake?

Napa_earthquake_damage_Goodman_library_URM_8_26_14_small After the magnitude 6.0 South Napa earthquake at 3 am on August 24th, two large historical buildings in downtown Napa were red-tagged and deemed unsafe because of falling debris onto the sidewalk. The falling bricks posed a life-safety risk, and we can only imagine the potential danger to pedestrians if the quake had occurred at 3 pm instead of 3 am. It is important to note that these two older buildings (“unreinforced masonry” buildings, or URM buildings) had previously been seismically retrofitted. Read more

Civil Engineering in Fremont: Features of New Thermo Fisher Building

Fremont_Thermo_Fisher2Secretly, you may want to add a few years to the projected completion date of a complex construction project, to account for potential delays. But this was not the case for the construction of the new 275,000-square-foot Thermo Fisher Scientific manufacturing facility in the Warm Springs Area of South Fremont. A little over two years after project design began, a sustainable and large-scale research and development (R&D) building now stands just south of Tesla Motors. We at Landtech Consultants (the Thermo Fisher project civil and structural engineer) are breathing sighs of relief. Read more

New Fremont Development Around Future Transit Site Becoming Reality

Fremont_Thermo_Fisher_aerialThis rare instance of open land in Silicon Valley is now closer to becoming the bustling transit-oriented employment center the City of Fremont hopes it will be. Lennar Corporation was selected as the developer of a 112-acre parcel of land (owned by Union Pacific) in the Warm Springs District (home to under-construction Bay Area Rapid Transit Station, or BART), and they will not only develop housing, but also commercial real estate for additional jobs. Another company who bought land from Union Pacific in the future Innovation District, Thermo Fisher Scientific, is completing their manufacturing facility in a southern parcel of the District, and is set to finish by the end of July. Read more