Ammon Takes Control of System Assets

Idaho utility's commitment to GIS mapping is driven by two goals - achieving system efficiency and taking possession of its own data.
Ammon Takes Control of System Assets
City of Ammon water department employee Brandon Russell gathers GIS information from the city’s distribution system. (Photography by Jeff Smith)

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Ammon, Idaho, is a small city with a big appetite for progress. The municipality is linked by city-owned fiber optic infrastructure, and efforts to create geographic information system maps of sewer and water infrastructure are well underway.

How does a small community with a limited budget take on such massive challenges? It’s a combination of the efforts of dedicated staff members, cooperation between city departments and the willingness of stakeholders to demonstrate expected return on investment.

Double the size

“The city doubled in size between 2000 and 2010,” says Bruce Patterson, technology director with the City of Ammon. “But our information systems hadn’t kept up. We had three different SCADA systems and they didn’t talk to each other.”

Ammon was also outsourcing management of its SCADA system database, paying a license fee for each data point added to the network.

“Our Public Works Director Ray Ellis wanted to see one single SCADA system for everything from water to wastewater,” Patterson says. “We decided that whatever we did, we wanted to be stewards of our own data instead of paying service providers to manage it. We were committed to avoid investing in dying standards and we wanted to build a modern system, not just compared to other utilities, but to the state of the art of the technology available.”

The city decided on Ignition SCADA software by Inductive Automation, underpinned by a reliable city-owned fiber optic network that would not only serve the city’s public utilities, but also emergency services, residents and businesses. However, Patterson wanted to ensure that the city’s fiber network had reliable GIS data to delineate its location. The information technology department soon advertised a part-time data entry position with a GIS component using FiberBase software.

GIS a specialty

Enter Carol Ellison, GIS specialist with the City of Ammon, who had recently embarked on a second career in GIS mapping.

“I have always loved maps,” she says. “I think they’re beautiful. One day at work in a clerical position I found a copy of an Esri magazine on the floor. I read it and was so excited by the idea of combining my love of maps with technical skill that I enrolled in Idaho State University for earth and environmental systems with a core in remote sensing and GIS applications.”

Ellison was hired part time to begin GIS mapping of fiber in early 2012. However, since the city Engineering Department had already purchased Esri ArcGIS software, Patterson, Ellis and City Engineer Lance Bates agreed to share costs and transform her job into a full-time position, which would involve GIS mapping the entire water and wastewater infrastructure.

“They could see benefits for the entire city,” says Ellison. “For that reason, it would be important that we create a system that every city department could access.

However, for a small city, budget is everything, so we wanted to proceed at as low a cost as possible. The opportunity to build something like this from the ground floor is rare, so I wanted to do it both effectively and cost-effectively.”

Ellison began with aerial maps of the city that had already been purchased by the Engineering Department.

Merging data islands

“We didn’t have as-built information on most of the system, and even drawings of the water and wastewater systems were islands that never crossed paths,” Ellison says. “The human knowledge base was also declining as people retired. If we had drawings, we couldn’t necessarily interpret them accurately. We essentially started at ground zero, but a survey company had already provided digital survey data for a water system improvement project that just happened to include GIS components, including digital data points, basic pipe and manhole locations and elevations. The digital format allowed us to incorporate our GIS data directly into the digital survey map so we could refine it and incorporate corrections, making it our own.”

Ellison next compiled and incorporated other available data, including GIS coordinates collected by Bonneville County for first responders.

With budget in mind, she worked with Public Works to devise a system of GIS data collection that would take advantage of what field workers were already doing.

“Ray wanted to base data collection on a work order system so that every time field workers would complete a work order, they would also collect or correct GIS data,” Ellison says. “This way we would eventually collect all of the data we needed, using only incremental extra effort by staff.”

Ellison and her team selected Field Mapplet by Spatial Wave Software, a GIS-enabled mobile computing platform to allow field staff to input data on pipes, valves, meters and manholes using laptops or tablets.

“One of the advantages of Field Mapplet is that it could easily incorporate our existing GIS data,” she says. “When field workers see something incorrect they redline the location on the application and correct the data, adding notes about what they see. If they’re turning a valve, they can also electronically attach the associated work order to create a report on the number of maintenance and service calls associated with any infrastructure. Our field workers have quickly risen to the challenge of adapting their routines to include GIS data gathering.”

Metrics for success

What are the metrics for the GIS program’s success?

“They’re difficult to quantify and they may be different for each department,” Ellison says. “It’s often easier to measure return on investment in a private industry where there’s a profit statement at the end of each quarter.”

However, some departmental stakeholders are seeing benefits sooner than others.

“The GIS system is still relatively young and yet we can see its value already,” says Bates. “The efficiency of retrieving information about infrastructure improvements and providing that to developers and citizens is greatly improved. The ability to provide a visual map rather than trying to write a description is worth a thousand words. As the system improves, other layers of information become available, which will serve the public and the private sector equally.”

Ellis cautions smaller municipalities that patience is a virtue when waiting to see expected return on a GIS investment.

“We don’t yet see the advantages much in day-to-day operations,” he says. “From my view, the GIS and system documentation will pay dividends as projects are developed for upgrades and replacements because the engineering research is readily at hand. It will also prove valuable as we move ahead because of the electronic documentation of maintenance history.”

CSI Ammon

In one recent instance, GIS data has already proved invaluable.

When the Oxbow Wastewater Treatment Facility expressed concern that Ammon might be contributing more than its share of fats, oils and grease to the plant, the city presented an ironclad defense, backed up by GIS data.

Operated by the Eastern Idaho Regional Wastewater Treatment Authority, the plant is located a dozen miles southwest of Ammon, in the City of Shelley, and also serves neighboring counties.

“The underlying issue was odor,” Ellis says. “It was assumed by the Oxbow treatment plant that it was FOG related.”

Ellison helped defend the city’s reputation by providing aerial imagery married to city GIS data.

“We were able to provide data points to identify every possible avenue for FOG produced by Ammon to enter the wastewater system,” she says.

Public Works next compared its own meticulous records to the data points.

“We regularly sample and test for FOG both using in-house resources and through independent labs,” Ellis says. “Visual inspection, CCTV inspection and flow testing showed that solids were not remaining in suspension in our wastewater stream. In short, we had the personnel, the skills, the equipment, procedures and documentation to prove that we run a top-notch wastewater collections system and were not the source of the odor problem.”

Ellison says she continues to note improved functionality of the GIS system as it matures.

“I’m feeling a lot better about our GIS data every day as we verify it,” Ellison says. “We’ve even provided corrected GIS data to Bonneville County, allowing first responders greater geographic precision in responding to calls.”

Ellison’s advice to smaller communities attempting a similar GIS program: “Start small and then work toward greater and greater precision with the collaborative effort of your team, even though the final goal may be years away. The more eyes that examine that data and add their perspectives, the more valuable the data will become. We’re all stewards of the data of our city, and that’s a sacred trust.”

System snapshot

The City of Ammon operates a diverse water and wastewater system that is already benefiting from a solid geographic information system mapping program.

Ammon’s Public Works Director Ray Ellis notes that the system contains a little of almost every material used to build water and wastewater pipes — except wood.

Water pipes range from 2 to 18 inches in diameter, while sewer pipes range from 4 to 32 inches in diameter.

The system’s wastewater pipes were installed between 1974 and 2012 and its water pipes between 1940 and 2010.

“The general condition of our sewer system is good since most of the infrastructure is within its expected life cycle,” says Ammon City Engineer Lance Bates. “There are small areas that have been identified as needing attention, and those are being planned for improvement. The water system in the older parts of town is past its expected life cycle and a steady stream of issues is dealt with as problems arise. A more detailed and in-depth repair and replacement plan is currently being put together that can address these as a systemwide goal rather than a short-term fix. The rest of the water system is in very good condition since a large percentage has been installed in the last 10 years.”

Sewer cleaning and CCTV inspection is performed by in-house staff from quarterly to triannually, depending on the location of the pipes. The city owns its own Envirosight inspection van and Vactor combination truck.

Minor repairs to the system are also handled in-house while larger repairs are contracted out.

“The GIS system is still fairly new and is not playing a major role in repair and replacement priorities yet,” Bates says. “However, as we add data over time, the role of GIS in these processes will increase dramatically.”


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