Feature Photo (above): The Southern Area Incident Management Team undertook controlled burns April 17, 2011 to rid the mountains around McDonald Observatory of fuel. Black and Spring Mountains (left) burn across a valley from the Hobby-Elberly Telescope dome at right. The bright line on the right is the wildfire that broke through a burn-out line the same day. Credit: Frank Cianciolo/McDonald Observatory.
by Adolfo Pesquera
Fort Davis (Jeff Davis County) — Seven years ago, a massive wildfire sprinted across central Jeff Davis County, coming within 15 miles of the McDonald Observatory. The fire exposed weaknesses in the safety measures used to protect the state’s most famous astronomy telescopes.
Had a fortuitous wind not turned the fire elsewhere, damage to the facility from the Rock House Fire, as it came to be known, could have been in the millions of dollars. The fire burned over 314,000 acres, making it one of the largest in the state’s history.
The observatory, managed and operated by the University of Texas-Austin, has firefighting resources and they were put to use. However, a post-fire assessment concluded the existing systems did not have an adequate water supply.
The observatories sit on two mountains, Mt. Fowlkes and Mt. Locke. Daniel Heath, director for facilities and project development at the UT-Austin College of Natural Sciences, was visiting the site intermittently during the several weeks the fires burned. He has been in charge of the infrastructure upgrades for much of the duration.
“The fire marshal said that in order to protect the mountains, we needed to be able to protect any part of the mountains at a pump rate of 1,000 gallons per minute for two hours,” Heath said.
There was just enough storage at the time to meet that 120,000 gallon requirement, but such an event would deplete the water supply in a region where potable water is scarce under normal conditions.
“The rainy season is one month of the entire year. We decided we needed to have more storage on the mountain,” Heath said.
In the years since, the university has made extensive efforts to locate new water supplies and design a delivery system.
The upgrade projects were helped along in late 2011 when the UT System Board of Regents allocated $6.5 million for future infrastructure improvements. The total project allocation increased twice in 2014 and once in 2016.
Earlier this month the board increased it again, bringing the total pot of allocations to $13.5 million.
A satellite view of the McDonald Observatory facilities. Image: Google Earth.
The original project fund, about $8 million, proved insufficient because actual construction costs came in higher than estimated, the regents were told during the staff briefing.
“The remoteness of the site and increased construction activity in the area have contributed to higher construction costs and additional filtration equipment was necessary to meet allowable limits required by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality,” the regents were told.
AECOM has had the contract as construction manager, Heath said, but the logistics have been challenging for many reasons. Concrete, for example, has to come from El Paso, 224 miles away. Cement mixer trucks cannot be used because the payload will set by the time it arrives.
“You have to order it in a batch truck. That’s a concrete truck that has all the ingredients but doesn’t mix them until it’s on site,” Heath said.
There are also unique challenges, he noted, to bringing heavy equipment onto mountain slopes with their steep and uneven grades. Mobilization costs, fuel costs and labor costs in a region where oil field activity had been spiking during much of the project also pushed costs up.
Construction began in 2012 and about two-thirds of the total allocation has been spent. About $4.5 million is still on hand to complete the project, UT-Austin Communications Manager Laurie Lentz told VBX. That includes the latest allocation and some unexpended funds.
The construction value of the remaining funds is approximately $2.5 million to $3 million, Lentz said. The budget increase that was requested this summer will allow the project to extend the water supply infrastructure to the full observatory site, an area of almost 670 acres, Lentz said.
To date, the project tasks that have been completed include the wastewater system, four test well investigations, construction of two permanent wells, and the design of the system’s storage and distribution infrastructure. What remains to be constructed are new storage tanks, pump houses and the distribution pipes.
Heath said the designs are still in progress, but will be completed shortly. He expects construction to resume before the end of the year.
The expertise needed includes civil, structural, fire protection and MEP engineers, heavy equipment operators for dirt work, plumbers, and electricians. Using UT-Austin design-build guidelines for recruiting trades, AECOM will be soliciting in the coming months.
The project schedule calls for substantial completion by December 2020. When activity resumes, Lentz said workers will be on the observatory grounds intermittently until the projects are done.
Once the project is done, Heath said one added benefit will be a new supply of potable water for observatory operations.
“Water is such a valuable resource, so it has to be for multiple uses,” he said.
View of the April 2011 Rock House wildfire, shot from the catwalk of the 2.1-metere Otto Struve Telescope dome looking east. The 2.7-meter Harlan J. Smith Telescope is at left. Credit: Frank Cianciolo/McDonald Observatory.