Risk Management Applied in the Field

Crews gather in front of the Lake Mead Intake No. 3 tunnel boring machine cutterhead

Crews gather in front of the Lake Mead Intake No. 3 tunnel boring machine cutterhead following the successful hole-through in December 2014.

The Battle Born State of Nevada is no stranger to fighting for its share of resources. When drought struck the Southwest United States in 2000 and continued persistently for 20 years, Lake Mead experienced an unprecedented drop in elevation. This event grabbed the immediate attention of water resource planners because Lake Mead is the primary water supply for the thirsty yet resilient desert community of Southern Nevada.

With the lowering lake levels, the ability of the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) to operate its existing intake and pumping stations was in jeopardy. SNWA began evaluating alternatives for a new deeper intake to ensure sustained access to this vital resource and the continued flow of water to its water treatment plants. In 2005, the SNWA’s Board of Directors approved the overall Intake No. 3 project that included a new water intake riser, 3-mile intake tunnel, 2,500 ft of connector tunnel, a deep-set pumping station and large diameter aqueducts and power supply facilities. As the tunnel hole-through was just nearing completion in 2014, SNWA’s Board authorized the work to begin on the deep-set pumping station called the Low Lake Level Pumping Station (L3PS). Once completed in 2020, the L3PS will ensure continued pumping capability from deep within the lake.

The projects are set in the beautiful Lake Mead National Recreational Area, home to some of the most striking geology – in terms of scenery and complex geology – in the Southwest United States. The ground conditions for the Intake No. 3 project included hard rock, large clay filled faults, and high-water pressure – conditions that resulted in a record TBM excavated tunnel drive up to 15 bar pressure. The new intake projects connect to SNWA’s existing treatment plants and other two existing intakes and associated pumping stations.

SNWA chose to use the design-build (DB) delivery method for the Lake Mead Intake No. 3 tunnel contract. In 2008 after multi-year-long procurement process, the design-builder, Vegas Tunnel Constructors (a joint venture between Impregilo and S.A. Healy) was awarded the $447 million contract. The Intake No. 3 tunneling project was successfully completed and put into operation in 2015. In 2014, SNWA’s Board authorized the start of the associated pumping station, L3PS, designed to pump even if lake levels continued to drop dramatically. SNWA selected the construction manager at risk (CMAR) delivery method.
One of the major contributing factors to overcoming the challenges on the Intake No. 3 project was the collaborative approach to risk management initiated by the commitment from the project leadership between the Owner and the Contractor. This group effort contributed to the successful completion of this technically challenging high-risk underground project. The Lake Mead projects would not have been successful without the visionary approach, continuous improvement over time, and input and participation from everyone on the project team. This same approach was then implemented on the L3PS project which is currently under construction.

Comprehensive Risk Management

In 2006, during the DB procurement phase, SNWA and its hired engineer utilized a comprehensive approach to risk management and required that the successful design-builder continue its implementation. SNWA created a risk identification list and it was included in the DB procurement documents. This conveyed the list of risks – or at least what risks were known at the time – to the interested firms. Once the DB was on board, the risk identification document was then further developed into a risk register and managed by the DB, with full collaborative development among all parties involved. In addition, the project team implemented the following best-practice elements that combined to result in a comprehensive approach to risk management:

  • Risk Management Plan
  • Designated Risk Manager
  • Risk Register
  • Risk Workshops
  • Risk Facilitator
  • Risk Sharing – Pricing Structures & Provisions
  • Partnering
  • Conflict Resolution
  • Use of Risk Management Guidance Documents (i.e., ITIG Code of Practice, Guidelines in Risk Management)

The Partnership

In 2008, at the beginning of the Intake No. 3 DB work, the DB suggested that the project hire a risk facilitator to guide risk workshops and lead the team in the implementation of the risk management plan and namely the ongoing maintenance of the risk register as a single risk register. All parties – the DB and the Owner’s team – participated in an open sharing of ideas in the risk workshops. The DB had the primary responsibility for the risk management, but all parties contributed to the development, continual maintenance, and implementation of the risk register. The facilitator was present to guide the process, keep the team on track during the workshop, encourage discussion among the team members, and offer suggestions to improve. By discussing the work at hand, possible risks, potential mitigation measures, and developing unified mitigation measures, the team came together beautifully and a true partnership developed. The risk workshops took the place of partnering sessions and the risk facilitator was paid through the partnering allowance.

Making It Real at the Field Level

For risk management to have meaningful results, the risk register must be a “living document,” not just another report that goes into file and the box checked. But how do you make it real? The project and its people benefit most if risk management becomes part of the team culture!

When all the main project team members participate in the risk workshops together, this fosters better understanding of the risks and better exchange of ideas for potential mitigation measures. The process and the mitigation measures must be communicated to the field crews who then must be encouraged to bring forward concerns and ideas.

During construction, it is the contractor that determines when to implement most mitigation measures because it is the party in best position to control the risk. It is also the contractor’s field crews that will first see an issue and make the call to implement the mitigation measures in the field or raise it up to be addressed, thus making a difference on the outcome of the project. On the Lake Mead Intake No. 3 contracts, the designated “risk owner” on the risk register is an individual person on the project team who is most able to control that risk and implement the mitigation measures, and not the contractually responsible party. Risks that are completely out of the project team’s control were not listed on the project risk register.

The project team also included an item called “Risk Discussion” on the weekly construction progress meeting agenda to keep the risk management culture in the forefront and keep the lines of communication open. The contractor involved the field crews at all shift meetings by encouraging them to bring up any new risks or concerns.

Fundamentally, the following factors make risk management a real and valued component of all successful projects:

  • Risk Management Approach – awareness by all people on the job.
  • Open Communication – project management and the field
  • Risk Owner – the individual person best positioned to control the risk or in other words able to “make the call!”


For any project to be successfully built, the entire project team must come together at multiple levels and across many key subject practices. Risk management provides a valuable opportunity for partnering on what matters most – a safe workplace where risk is shared, managed and overcome by the entire project team.

References: 2015, Grayson J., Nickerson J., & Moonin E. 2015. Partnering Through Risk Management: Lake Mead Intake No. 3 Risk Management Approach. 2015 Rapid Excavation and Tunneling Conference, SME, R2015.10, 112-116.

Erika Moonin, P.E., is Engineering Project Manager for the Southern Nevada Water  Authority.

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