Energy, Utilities & Water  July 10, 2022

Dam construction workers make homes here for duration

LARIMER COUNTY —  Pickup trucks and sedans bearing license plates from all over the country dot the dusty parking lots at 2145 Chimney Hollow Road in rural Loveland. 

Those vehicles belong to a roving band of construction workers who sign on to work with Barnard Construction Co. Inc., the general contractor based in Bozeman, Montana, that has the contract to build the Chimney Hollow dam and reservoir project west of Carter Lake in Larimer County. 

Type “Barnard general contractor” into Google, and a reference to Barnard Construction Co. Inc. pops up with an address of 2145 Chimney Hollow Road. But the company isn’t really based there, although you can be forgiven if you make that mistake. The workers, about 200 or so, are either permanently affiliated with Barnard or who like what they’ve found with the contractor and move from job to job with the company. They’ll work on Chimney Hollow for the four-year lifespan of the project, buy houses nearby, put their kids in local schools, then move on when the next project is secured.

“We get to see a lot of the country,” said Scott Brady, project manager for Barnard for Chimney Hollow. “It’s good and bad, but that’s how it works. We pack up and move to the site. We blend right into the community.”

Brady, a 28-year veteran of Barnard, knows of what he speaks as he’s moved often in his career. “In the beginning, our jobs were three to six months long and people would travel in RVs. Now, jobs are bigger, more complicated and longer duration. So families move along [with the worker.]”

On this job, Barnard has about 50 permanent, full-time staff and about 150 to 180 “craft” workers, including carpenters, laborers, and equipment operators. “Some have been with us 30 plus years. We’ve got third generation kids working with us,” he said.

The company also brings aboard subcontractors and suppliers — about 50 for this project. Not all are on site every day, but the security gate records about 300 people entering the worksite every day.

While those workers are working day shifts now, a couple of the crews, including those who will haul aggregate from the quarry to create the dam embankment, will work double shifts in order to compress the schedule.

Barnard is well known in the industry for its dam work. “It’s a foundation of the company,” Brady said. “I don’t know how many we’ve done.” The company’s website lists about 80 dams and reservoirs over the past 40 years.

Most of those projects have been reinforcements, infrastructure rebuilds, earthquake upgrades and extension of existing dams. “This is one of the first new dams and probably the largest new dam to be built in the past 20 years. Most new dams have been in Canada,” he said.

Barnard is among a very few companies worldwide to specialize in dam work, although not the only one. 

Joe Donnelly, project manager for the dam owner, Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, said Northern prequalified five contractors when it began its search for a partner to build the dam. He described a process that required companies to pass through multiple “gates” of inquiry. Contractors were scored on performance criteria, and only then were financial considerations taken into account. “We took a combination of pricing and their scores to determine the best value contractor to build the project,” Donnelly said.

Barnard did have experience with Northern before. About 15 years ago, it built the Pleasant Valley pipeline connecting the Poudre River with Horsetooth Reservoir.

Barnard’s other experience in the state includes another current project; it joined with another contractor to expand Gross Reservoir for Denver Water. It also installed the fire-suppression system in the Eisenhower/Johnson tunnels along Interstate 70. 

Tunnels are another speciality of Barnard, and the Barnard tunnel team is onsite at Chimney Hollow boring into the hillside to create a water inlet/outlet.

“When a dam gets so tall, there’s a lot of pressure,” Donnelly said. Chimney Hollow will be 392 feet from its deepest point to the top, plus 230 feet of below-grade grout.

“Best practice is to have an outlet through a tunnel,” as opposed to a pipe running through the embankment.

Barnard’s tunnel group bid that aspect of the project, and the contractor decided to use its group instead of an alternative company. During a visit to the site in May, visitors saw that the tunnel group was proceeding at a rate of about 10 feet per week with the completed tunnel to be about 2,000 feet in length.

Barnard’s tunnel group was also involved in recent years with another high-visibility project: The low-water-level tunnel outlet for Lake Mead, required because levels in that reservoir have sunk to less than 20% of the reservoir’s capacity and below where other outlets are located.

All the work is being done with an eye toward environmental responsibility, Brady said. The company set up a water treatment plant on site, for example, because water used in some parts of the project — to create the grout curtain under the dam or to wash aggregate mined on site for use in concrete — can’t be released into the environment without treatment. 

“We pride ourselves on working with an owner,” Brady said. “Northern Water operates like we do, and works as a partner and a team,” he said.

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