“If I had to do the CAD-to-GIS conversion for every record drawing that comes into the district, I'd have a two-year backlog right now. Giving that responsibility to external users has . . . allowed me extra time to do other things within the engineering department and to work with the GIS team to get better results.”
Santa Margarita Water District Streamlines Workflows with ArcGIS for AutoCAD
As the second largest retail water agency in Orange County, California, the Santa Margarita Water District (SMWD) serves over 200,000 residents across nine communities. On average, the district distributes 13 billion gallons of water annually within its 111-square-mile service area. Between its three systems (domestic water, recycled water, and wastewater), SMWD must maintain over 1,700 miles of pipeline and provide service to over 70,000 connections.
Pilar Yager, GIS specialist for Santa Margarita Water District (SMWD), sought a way to convert district record drawings (or engineering drawings) into a digital format compatible with GIS.
ArcGIS for AutoCad, a free, downloadable plug-in application for AutoCAD
Using ArcGIS for AutoCAD at SMWD has greatly improved the efficiency of the CAD-to-GIS conversion process and supports the seamless import and editing of GIS datasets directly within the AutoCAD drawing environment.
SMWD needs to keep pace with its growing service area, which includes planned development that will add over 11,000 residential dwelling units and related commercial development through 2040. To perform routine maintenance, SMWD field staff require access to highly detailed and accurate record drawings for these new assets, which range from large transmission mains to treatment facilities and pump stations.
Eight years ago, SMWD’s GIS specialist Pilar Yager and her colleagues deployed geographic information system (GIS) technology. Until that time, one-third of the district’s data was recorded via computer-aided design (CAD), and the remainder was drawn with ink on Mylar. Yager sought a way to convert district record drawings (or engineering drawings) into a digital format compatible with GIS. Record drawings contain exact specifications of district assets, such as line type, diameter, and material, to show the “as-built” conditions of the completed project.
SMWD began using Esri’s ArcGIS for AutoCAD plug-in—a solution designed to create and edit ArcGIS data directly in Autodesk AutoCAD software—to ensure record drawings are consumable within the district’s GIS platform. ArcGIS for AutoCAD allowed the district to synergize CAD and GIS, streamlining workflows and boosting efficiency across departments.
During SMWD’s conversion of CAD to GIS, there were inherent pitfalls related to sharing information between the two systems. CAD drawings have no direct correlation between vector data and attribute data. For district staff, converting CAD or ink-on-Mylar drawings into GIS datasets was a tedious process, requiring them to manually set parameters, populate attributes, attach feature class tables, and more.
SMWD receives continuous submissions from independent engineering consultants, contractors, and developers for CAD design improvements involving district assets and infrastructure. These construction plans need to be documented and made available across many teams, including SMWD’S engineers, designers, specialists, and project managers. To achieve a cohesive workflow, CAD drawings are converted to GIS datasets so that they can be shared across the ArcGIS platform with all contributors.
Noel Valencia, senior engineering technician at SMWD, is responsible for digital record drawings that are submitted from contractors to the district. He must perform a QC (quality control) check on all CAD submissions to ensure they are compatible with GIS and match the hard-copy record drawings per SMWD’s engineering standard utility plan submission requirements. In the past, this submission process often resulted in Valencia receiving inaccurate or incomplete information from external stakeholders, impeding district workflows.
Evaluating and converting record drawings to GIS-ready files was also time-consuming. For instance, if a developer submitted a project involving a pipeline that was 1,000 feet long, it might take Valencia 12 to 16 hours to prepare the CAD drawing for Yager to use in GIS.
In addition to pipes, SMWD must capture data for valves, reservoirs, pump stations, and other district facilities. Underground assets require additional layers of planning, as record drawings must be able to pinpoint pipe and line locations relative to streets, sidewalks, and other utilities. After the assets are placed and the surface is repaved, district staff are reliant on highly detailed and accurate record drawings for information.
“Record drawings capture information as the assets go into the earth,” said Yager. “All that granular data is very valuable, and it’s translated into CAD to use as an engineering tool. Being able to bring that same specificity into GIS, from the onset, is critical.”
District staff wanted a new solution to streamline this workflow and improve asset sharing.
Yager and Valencia needed a method for retaining the specificity of CAD drawings within the ArcGIS platform to allow for a streamlined workflow between their systems. In 2019, SMWD began using ArcGIS for AutoCAD to address this challenge.
ArcGIS for AutoCAD is a free, downloadable plug-in app for Autodesk AutoCAD, Civil 3D, and Map 3D. It provides interoperability between AutoCAD and ArcGIS, allowing users to access and create GIS data by connecting to services from ArcGIS Online and ArcGIS Enterprise. Within the AutoCAD environment, SMWD staff gain easy access to GIS maps in the form of map services, image services, and feature services.
Yager, an avid follower of innovations in technology, said her interest was immediately piqued when she learned of the plug-in. “GIS is dynamic, and life is dynamic,” Yager said. “If you don’t stay plugged in and informed, you might miss something that could prove really useful.”
The next step was implementing the tool in a way that would offer heightened efficiency and accuracy across all workflows. Yager and Valencia each drew on their extensive knowledge of GIS and CAD, respectively, to simplify the data collection and conversion process. They needed to find a reliable and simple way to receive information from external developers.
Valencia created a set of capture standards, instructions, and sample designs to outline the minimum requirements that must be met for final record drawings to be accepted by the district. External stakeholders, such as engineering consultants, developers, and contractors, can use SMWD’s comprehensive guide for record drawing submissions to convert their CAD drawings to GIS datasets. He also created a demo video walking developers and contractors through the CAD to GIS conversion process. This ensures final record drawings accurately represent the location and attributes of assets and their accessories, supporting sustainable service delivery in the district.
“Our CAD digital submittal requirements are built into our design handbook, which has all of the specifications for our district,” said Valencia. “It streamlined the process for us to request that information from external developers. They submit what’s called a ‘CAD-to-GIS-ready’ drawing file, which gives us the data we need to support our district.”
To make the data usable, Yager publishes a template of feature class datasets to the server so that Valencia can access it. A feature class dataset is a collection of related feature classes, or objects, that share a common coordinate system, either geographic or a specific projection. This allows users to review data on a map, query data for specific information, or edit data. Valencia imports the feature class dataset into a blank AutoCAD drawing, which automatically gives him embedded tables for every facility type in the district.
“Once I have the feature class tables in AutoCAD, the developers or CAD users can link the tables to their objects and populate the fields based on district requirements before they complete their digital submission,” said Valencia. “Now we have a CAD-to-GIS-ready file that I can QC check and send to Pilar [Yager].”
These final files are in DWG format, used for storing 2D and 3D design data and metadata. After Valencia sends Yager the DWG files, she uploads them into a staging file geodatabase using ArcGIS for AutoCAD. The files are converted into a feature dataset in an existing geodatabase and then added as a group layer in a map.
All the inputs are combined into a single output CAD dataset, which includes different types of features like points, lines, and polygons, as well as any existing CAD-defined features.
“The CAD to GIS conversion process that we've developed, with the assistance of Esri, allows us to take final record drawings and make those record drawings GIS usable data using the ArcGIS for AutoCAD plug-in,” said Valencia. “I think that's the biggest hump that we've been able to get over, and we've been successful at it.
Using ArcGIS for AutoCAD at SMWD has greatly improved the efficiency of the CAD-to-GIS conversion process. This integration allows for the seamless import and editing of GIS datasets extracted from district geodatabases directly within the AutoCAD drawing environment.
“ArcGIS for AutoCAD saves us time, it saves us effort, it saves us money,” said Yager. “That’s a great success.”
Synergizing GIS and CAD informs the SMWD design process and ensures record drawings are consumable within the district’s GIS platform. Since adopting the new digital submission process, Valencia and Yager have seen marked improvements in workflow efficiency and data accuracy. Optimizing the import and export of data into GIS gives teams the ability to work concurrently, avoid redesigns, and maximize effectiveness. Field staff and departments across SMWD can work with the same data synchronously, eliminating prior gaps in information sharing and decision-making.
“Our main goal was to simplify the process of obtaining accurate data, which was crucial for us,” said Yager. “We identified a linchpin in this process, which involved directly sourcing data from the developers. They were responsible for creating the drawings and populating the attributes, ensuring that we didn't have to interpret anything.”
Having accurate information about the locations of assets such as pipes, valves, and facilities is crucial for infrastructure management at SMWD. By utilizing the ArcGIS for AutoCAD plug-in, Yager and Valencia can deliver high-quality information, enabling field staff to efficiently maintain and operate district assets.
“This tool makes it easy,” said Valencia. “It allows CAD users to transition smoothly into a different world from the CAD perspective.”
With years of experience in CAD, Valencia appreciates how the user interface of ArcGIS for AutoCAD seamlessly integrates into the AutoCAD environment. It becomes an invisible—yet essential—component that smoothly facilitates everyday tasks for AutoCAD users by adding GIS data as native CAD elements. These can be edited and manipulated by the standard AutoCAD tools, as well as ArcGIS for AutoCAD specific panels, dialog boxes, and tool palettes.
Valencia emphasized the importance of controlling user access to CAD applications, an essential part of this process. For instance, if there is an attribute table with 100 fields, Yager and Valencia can choose to display only the 10 fields they need populated. This level of control enhances efficiency by making it easier for CAD users without GIS experience to actively participate.
Giving developers the responsibility of providing a CAD-to-GIS-ready file has saved Valencia countless hours of tedious data conversion. A process that once took upwards of 16 hours has been reduced to one hour or less—a 94 percent decrease in time spent on the task. Increased efficiency leaves more time for Valencia and Yager to continue to innovate and iterate their system. Additionally, both have received positive feedback from their internal and external users.
“Having our external users understand how feature class tables work and how to link objects to make the objects smarter has also made them learn something new about GIS,” Valencia said. “It’s made it easier for them to understand GIS and it’s made it more user-friendly for them, too.”