The Perfect Complement

Nov. 14, 2003
Leveraging software to protect the water supply

About the author: Robert P. Lee is president and CEO of Accela, Inc. Lee can be reached at [email protected]. For more information, phone 925/560-6577.


Water is the most essential element for life. From environmental preservation and economic viability to population growth and vibrant ecosystems, the water supply affects every aspect of a continually evolving and expanding society.

Because water is so essential to life, the ability for government at all levels to ensure access to a high-quality, sustainable water supply is crucial.

According to the World Bank Group, a United Nations agency specializing in water services development assistance, more than one billion people in the world still lack access to safe water. Here in the U.S., many local municipalities confront constant water issues such as ground contamination, chlorination levels, and aging delivery systems. Today's fears of chemical and biological terrorism have produced additional concerns about how to protect the water supply.

The current economic climate has forced many state and local governments to face budget cutbacks and service reductions. This situation often translates to a reduction in the replacement, repair, or upgrade of aging pipelines, tunnels, reservoirs, and dams. As a result, many water districts are turning to software technology for an efficient yet cost-effective way to protect the water supply.

As employees at water municipalities understand, many facets exist in maintaining water quality and delivery--infrastructure repair, preventative maintenance, and quality assurance are just some of the activities that agencies must track.

Software solutions provide water districts with the ability to take a centralized approach to these water management activities, resulting in time and cost savings for everyone involved. Software technology enables the coordination of numerous activities ranging from shutoff/connection work orders to meter records and asset report information. The end result is that water districts can automate their processes and reduce system and service redundancies.

Managing administrative tasks

As readers of WWD know, the administrative tasks involved in managing the maintenance information for an entire facility are tremendous.

Maintaining permits, inspections, and upgrading records and activities is a monumental strain on already limited resources. Software solutions can streamline many of the processes associated with this maintenance--from calculating and coordinating work orders to scheduling repairs and preventive maintenance.

In addition, software technology enables activity/process automation for many time-consuming activities such as asset valuation, project costing, and inventory control.

To ensure security, municipalities should consider applications that are flexible in establishing parameters yet offer robust system protection. User-defined fields and customizable screens allow users to configure the system to mimic an existing business process.

At the same time, the system should provide built-in security measures so that only employees at a certain level of clearance can access items such as costing criteria, staffing needs, and inspection details.

Developing an IT strategy

When assessing a municipality's capabilities and developing an overall IT strategy, WWD readers should consider the following guidelines:

*Anticipate growth and change;

*Maximize a budget with cost-effective programs; and

*Choose an enterprise approach.

When anticipating growth and change, an effective IT strategy involves selecting technology that not only meets immediate needs but also can adjust according to changes in agency demands and responsibilities.

One example that is becoming increasingly important for agencies is their ability to streamline the inspection process. A system that offers wireless capabilities will enable employees to access maintenance information from remote locations (e.g. reservoirs, watersheds, etc.) via mobile devices such as PDAs and laptops. Inspectors spend less time traveling to and from the main office and spend more time completing their work in the field.

Another area of growth is the use of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) for map analysis. GIS provides users with geographic representations of all land use and zoning information associated with a parcel, permit, inspection, or plan. This added functionality improves decision-making by providing staff with more convenient access to complex geographic data.

In order to maximize a budget using a cost-effective program, especially during these economic times, the budget for IT expenditures is likely to be constrained. Therefore, a strategy should account for long-term implications on the bottom line.

While ensuring security of the local water supply is tantamount and difficult to assign a monetary value, the reality is that municipalities must be diligent and creative in implementing cost-effective programs within a reasonable budget.

Even smaller agencies can see the cost saving benefits of implementing technology solutions. Although the city of Othello, Wash., is home to just a few thousand people, the Public Works Department still recognized the value of implementing a software application at its agency. The city is using asset management software to automate and track all work orders and preventative maintenance schedules for the water, sewer, street, and parks and recreation divisions.

Emphasizing the final point, choosing an enterprise approach, a coordinated, system-wide integration plan ensures protection for a water supply and also accomplishes other objectives important to a municipality.

Because so many land, permit, and resource management activities are related, taking an enterprise approach can create efficiencies across multiple departments and for the agency as a whole.

For example, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) illustrates the benefits of an enterprise solution.

The district is in charge of managing and maintaining the water supply and land acquisition activities for almost six million people across 16 counties in southern and central Florida. The land area they manage covers an area of 17,930 square miles.

The SFWMD has implemented technology to automate and track the district's land acquisition activities, allowing them to efficiently and effectively protect the area's water supply and corresponding ecosystem.

Dolores Cwalino, technology business analyst for the SFWMD commented that the software they use allows the district to "better protect and conserve the water supply in the Everglades by providing a method to track land information that affects the quantity, quality, timing, and distribution of the water supply."

Today, of the public utilities that provide basic needs such as electricity, gas, and telephone, none are more important than that of water. Technology is the perfect complement to managing and protecting the water supply because no matter what the state of the world, clean and accessible water will always remain essential to life.

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