The South Dakota plains supply an abundance of wheat, corn, and cattle to the rest of the country and the world. However, residents in this area east of the Missouri River have always struggled to find adequate water to meet their needs. With only 18 in. of rainfall per year, catchments and dams aren’t reliable for livestock water, and shallow groundwater wells are limited in quality and quantity.
Approximately 70% of the state’s most remote land area is served by 33 regional rural water pipeline systems and 11 of those rely on the Missouri River as their water source. WEB Water Development Association of Aberdeen, S.D. is one of those 11 and was one of the first large regional rural water systems in the nation. Faced with a growing customer base and increasing operating costs, WEB has invested in geographic information system (GIS) software to improve operating efficiencies and customer service.
GIS comes to the Dakota plains
In 1991, seven years after construction began, the WEB rural water system had grown from three to 17 counties. The system currently covers a 5,450-mile area. WEB’s 34-person staff serves more than 7,480 individual farms, ranches, and rural homes; a 650,000-head livestock industry; three ethanol plants; and 98 towns and bulk-use customers. The WEB project cost $137 million to complete.
Faced with increasing demand and costs, WEB decided to invest in GIS software to improve customer service and response time, and reduce operating costs. In February 2004, WEB hired a GIS consulting company to help determine how to automate the utility’s paper work-ticket system, record keeping and manual mapping processes.
Before WEB’s business needs could be addressed, the utility needed to improve and expedite its mapping processes and access to map information. To get facility and customer locations into the GIS as quickly as possible, the utility’s technician, Ted Tampary, scanned and geo-referenced (i.e., established the relationship between x–y map coordinates with known real-world latitude–longitude coordinates) hundreds of as-built drawings and loaded them into the system. Crews gathered field data on valve and facility locations using global positioning system equipment.
In addition to the scanned as-built drawings, WEB also has access to spatial data available from federal and state agencies. The utility gathered many data sets that overlaid its waterline maps, such as road systems, public land surveys, topography and color aerial imagery from the National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP). To expedite the mapping effort, the GIS consulting company developed data structures for all utility layers and then created a custom map editor application to simplify and standardize data entry so the utility’s staff could map facilities as quickly as possible.
“The time it takes to digitize and code customer locations using the editing application has been reduced from months to weeks,” said Tampary, who did most of the work with another WEB staffer. “Facilities can be rapidly mapped and attributed.”
Improved Customer Service
To improve WEB’s customer service needs, an application functionality was developed to track service calls and work completed, as well as record labor hours, mileage, cost and other relevant data associated with each work ticket.
WEB staff can now quickly and easily locate customers, record call information, assign work needed, and send the work ticket by e-mail to the appropriate operator or technician, along with copies to managers or others in the organization. Having the work-ticket information in a database allows management to run daily, weekly and monthly reports with the click of a mouse, breaking down calls by operator, service type, work needed and service area, as well as run follow-up reports or automatic reminders to make sure customer calls are not missed or lost.
Using GIS has improved the utility’s daily operations and long-term maintenance, as well as reduced costs. WEB is now able to track and analyze service calls by location, problem type, service area and operator. Using the NAIP imagery for reference and a measuring tool built into the GIS mapping system, WEB staff can measure pipe footages and quickly develop cost estimates for new hookups without leaving the office.
Application development started in August 2004 and was completed in October 2004, with additional enhancements made in late 2004 and early 2005. Initial implementation cost approximately $16 per customer meter, which is less than the $50 cost of a water meter. WEB absorbed the cost of implementing the GIS and didn’t charge customers due to the long-term cost savings of the system.
The charge per 1,000 gal has increased only once, but the monthly minimum that WEB charges its customers remains the same as 20 years ago.