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April 11, 2017 – Recent extreme weather has put increased stress on California’s aging water infrastructure and highlighted the fact that the state must invest billions to improve and repair its civil infrastructure. The California Policy Center reports the infrastructure is currently designed to serve 20 million people in a state with a population of 40 million.
When it comes to rebuilding water infrastructure, California will rely on California State University (CSU) water management, engineering, agriculture and construction management experts to renovate aging dams, canals and aqueducts. The CSU produces thousands of highly-skilled graduates in those fields every year that go on to serve their local communities throughout the state.
Chico State professor Rich Holman is currently working on projects to upgrade two of northern California’s dams and is eager to help rebuild the spillway at nearby Oroville dam, which was destroyed in February due to heavy rain. Officials are currently working to find ways to repair concrete erosion on the spillway and expect the work to cost $100 million to $200 million. Contractors including Holman are now working with agencies and levels of government to sort out the repair work.
The construction management professor and Chico State alumnus has decades of experience working on California’s dam infrastructure. Twenty years ago, he was the prime contractor for the Temperature Control Device Project at Shasta dam, overseeing the installation of an 8,000-ton device on the dam to maintain favorable downstream temperatures for fish.
Holman says it was the most fascinating project of his career and what inspired him to give back and teach future construction managers.
“Sharing real-world experience is invaluable in the classroom,” Holman said. “The students seem to appreciate and understand theories better when I can tell them what happened to me on a particular project. If it’s a mistake that could cost thousands of dollars, I’d rather have them know now so they can avoid it in the field.”
The real-world hands-on training puts CSU’s construction management graduates in high demand. California’s complex water supply system also offers thousands of careers, especially for water management and agricultural engineering students.
The state has more than 1,000 reservoirs, hundreds of groundwater basins and dozens of local and regional water systems. California also uses more water than any other state—according to 2010 USGS estimates, withdrawing some 38 billion gallons per day. Most is used for agriculture.
The state’s irrigation districts have thousands of miles of deteriorating irrigation canals in need of repair. The Center for Irrigation Technology at Fresno State and the Irrigation Training and Research Center (ITRC) at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo are working with the districts to update them.
Both centers are part of the CSU Chancellor’s Office charter for the Water Resources and Policy Initiatives, which leverages the expertise of about 250 researchers from throughout the CSU to help solve the state’s complex water issues.
In addition to supporting Cal Poly’s irrigation teaching program, the ITRC provides technical assistance and training to the irrigation industry. Over the past 25 years, the center has worked with most major irrigation districts in California on modernization issues.
“We assess the districts’ canals and then create a detailed report with recommendations on how they can be improved,” said ITRC Chairman Charles M. Burt. “Efficiency is important. Our motto is to not replace, but modernize the technology and infrastructure.”
The modernization efforts provide field experience for faculty and students—most specializing in agricultural engineering. The center employs 15 full-time staff and hires about 40 student researchers every year. The students play an integral role in creating the reports by applying mathematics and engineering theory.
Burt says job placement is high. After graduation, a majority of the students go on to work for irrigation and water districts or consulting firms.
“California’s agriculture infrastructure depends on water—and we have to have expert control, measurement and application of it,” Burt said. “Water really is a fascinating career. We look at complex problems with economical and efficient solutions. And the job demand will always be there because the state’s water challenges will never go away.”