Geographical Information Systems and Water Management

November 13, 2014

By Jim Albert

Geographical Information Systems are prevalent in our everyday lives, from smartphone push notifications to emergency dispatch centers. And while these are highly visible and above-ground applications, GIS also can be used in a bottom-up approach to water management.

“The general public has become more spatially aware,” according to David McKittrick, and that becomes good news for utility companies. Customers can be the first line of defense in alerting utility managers to problems that are occurring in the water system. Linking a customer’s contact information to a geographically located water meter can assist in quickly pinpointing a problem area.

McKittrick, a senior application specialist with over 20 years in the field of GIS and mapping, calls it the “Google Earth Effect.”  People are accustomed to using spatial technology – and not just those who are technically savvy. Anyone with a smartphone or tablet has access to maps and geographic location devices. Anytime consumers allow push notifications on phones and tablets, they are geographically referenced. How this information is used is a hotly debated issue.

But since governments, phone companies and social networks can pinpoint our location via our phones, why not do the same for our water network assets? This would allow us to identify and report small water problems before they become critical issues.

Municipalities can attach a street address and resident’s name or phone number to assets such as water meters. If a resident has a problem and contacts the utility system, workers can be dispatched to the trouble spot with critical information readily available. When water main breaks occur, feeds into the area can be isolated, valves needing to be adjusted can be identified, and affected customers can be notified. The same data connections can be made for public sanitary sewer systems. Manholes or sewer laterals can be linked to adjacent homeowners through GIS.

If residents spot a surcharging manhole – water flowing from underneath the manhole lid – or have sewage backing up into their home, they can expect fast and efficient service. A technician can be dispatched, pull up the latest CCTV video of the pipe and attempt to identify the problem. If, while reviewing the video, the technician notices a small root intrusion at the affected lateral from a video that is two years old, the technician can assume roots have grown since that time and are likely blocking the lateral. A technician’s mobile device can generate a work ticket to mobilize a crew to resolve the problem. It would be highly beneficial for water professionals to use the many facets of GIS because it can be interactive. It also benefits field crews to be empowered to update portions of information so the database will be current.

GIS not only is helpful to the water industry, but also to anyone who wants to visually understand the relationships between data and its spatial location. The ability to display geographically referenced information allows viewers to see patterns, trends and relationships that cannot easily be represented on a spreadsheet. We use GIS each time we map our location on a smartphone and get directions to another location. We see GIS used every day but don’t always realize it. Meteorologists use GIS to study weather patterns by charting past hurricane paths to predict future paths. Doctors and scientists use it to study trends when there are disease outbreaks, and GIS has proved useful in mitigating the spread of deadly diseases. Department stores and restaurants rely on GIS to study transportation and U.S. Census data to plan expansions and locations of new facilities.

Police and fire departments and emergency medical technicians use GIS daily. Police departments map the location of the closest patrol car when an emergency call is placed. Fire departments and EMTs use GIS to map the quickest route and avoid traffic problems. The FBI and state police have developed sexual predator websites, available to citizens, to track the location of offenders. The insurance industry uses GIS to set rate structures by analyzing crime statistics and weather patterns. Higher crime or damaging weather rates can directly affect premiums. Banks use GIS for investment research. The ability of banks to use GIS for branch location determined by desirable economic demographic data can greatly increase the chance of success. Delivery companies such as UPS and FedEx manage their fleets with GIS tracking analysis. Proper fleet management is how these companies make a profit. They use GIS to make sure their trucks are taking the most-efficient daily routes and to geographically track packages.

There are numerous real estate websites that have home data available, at the click of a mouse, for any area of the country. Prospective home buyers can thoroughly research an area using GIS. Data such as crime statistics, school and medical facility ratings, and employment information is accessible without ever visiting the area. Environmental scientists use GIS to assess climate change by mapping weather events and temperature fluctuations to develop trends and patterns that assist in predicting future conditions. This is by no means a complete list of the uses of GIS in everyday life, and its usage continues to expand.

I foresee that continual research will support the benefits of GIS in the water, wastewater and stormwater industries. Its use in water management will decrease costs and give utilities better control of assets. A poll conducted by Andrew Whelton, a doctoral student in civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, determined that utilities identified GIS as the most desired system upgrade. A properly integrated and managed GIS system can help utilities identify problems before they happen. Customers will feel more empowered and get quicker response to problems when they do occur. We cannot take water for granted, and we should use GIS to manage this important and most precious of resources.