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Fall 2005
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South Dakota Rural Water System Improves Operations Using GIS

The plains of South Dakota are part of the "bread basket" that raises the wheat, corn, and cattle that help feed the United States and the rest of the world. Since the homestead days, the people who live in this area have struggled to find adequate water to meet their human and livestock needs. Faced with a growing customer base and increasing operating costs, WEB Water of Aberdeen, South Dakota, looked to GIS and other technology to help improve customer service and operating efficiencies.

  click to enlarge
The editor application allows WEB Water to map its facilities.

WEB Water services more than 98 town and bulk customers. While this is a small number compared to most water systems, these customers are spread across 17 counties in both South Dakota and North Dakota for a total area of 5,450 square miles. This large service area, roughly the size of Connecticut, presents a number of challenges for maintaining the more than 6,200 miles of pipeline and other facilities.

Determining a solution to the customer service and operations problems was challenging as there was need to minimize hardware and software costs as well as implementation costs. There were also other challenges, such as automating "paper" operations and working with staff who "wear many hats." For example, Ted Tampary, WEB Water's GIS and systems analyst, is also a heavy equipment operator and is often called out on construction, maintenance, and repair projects.

In early 2004, WEB Water approached GeoNorth, LLC, a Portland, Oregon, Esri Business Partner, for assistance in providing GIS and database solutions to meet its growing needs. Curt Hohn, WEB Water's general manager, was first introduced to GeoNorth in 1996 while working at Clackamas County, Oregon. In February 2004, WEB Water contracted with GeoNorth to help determine how GIS could be used to improve operations and management. Initial efforts were focused on data and systems inventory, existing business practices, and determining needs.

Before developing a solution to address its business needs, WEB Water needed to develop a solution to improve and help expedite the mapping of the utility infrastructure. Before consulting with GeoNorth, WEB Water had previously scanned and georeferenced its as-built drawings. Since high-level mapping accuracy was not as important as getting the facilities and customer locations into a GIS, it was decided to heads-up digitize facilities from the scanned as-built drawings. Improvements will be made over time using GPS.

WEB Water also relied heavily on spatial data available from federal and state agencies, where WEB Water was able to gather many datasets such as jurisdictional boundaries, Public Land Survey System, transportation features, hydrography, and color imagery from the National Agricultural Imagery Program.

To expedite the mapping effort, GeoNorth first developed data structures for all utility layers and then created a custom ArcGIS Desktop (ArcView) editor application. The application was to simplify and standardize data entry for a primary application that would also be developed. The editor application was designed to be easy to use and to allow WEB Water to map its facilities much quicker. Existing customer records that are regularly extracted from a proprietary billing system can be quickly associated with mapped meter locations.

The application has already improved the mapping effort. According to Tampary, "The digitizing and coding of customer locations using the editing application is going much faster. Progress has been reduced from months to weeks."

Esri's GIS technology was used to support the primary goal of improving operations at WEB Water. The process had traditionally been conducted using a paper process. Requests for one-call locate or customer service would be received, then information would be recorded on paper forms that would be faxed or mailed to operators. A growing customer base and an aging infrastructure were rapidly dating the paper process. There was no longer a way to efficiently manage and track work.

GeoNorth developed an application that is based on MapObjects and GeoNorth's CityMap framework solution that was then extended to address maintenance operations.

Since there was neither a budget nor a need to invest in a full-featured infrastructure maintenance management system, application functionality was developed to simply track service calls and work completed and record labor hours, mileage, etc., associated with each work ticket. The application is also configurable and was designed so WEB Water could easily make modifications to accommodate different work groups, work requests, materials, and inventory sources.

Using the application, WEB Water can rapidly locate customers, automatically determine the service area and technician, and record call information. With a single button click, a work request PDF report is generated and e-mailed to the service technician. In some cases, WEB Water has installed the application at remote offices and established a Virtual Private Network connection, allowing operators to directly query and view the live data as well as update call record information.

For more information, contact Curt Hohn, general manager, WEB Water Development Association (tel.: 1-800-658-3957, e-mail: chohn@webwater.org), or contact Marshall Payne, principal, GeoNorth, LLC (tel.: 503-827-0827, e-mail: mpayne@geonorth.com).

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