GIS Forms the Backbone for Ultra-Complex Environmental Program | Black & Veatch

GIS Forms the Backbone for Ultra-Complex Environmental Program

GIS Forms the Backbone for Ultra-Complex Environmental Program

Multi-faceted political forces. Environmental concerns. Economic realities. Agricultural impacts. Social challenges. Water scarcity.

Those are just some of the issues at play on the Delta Habitat Conservation & Conveyance Program (DHCCP) and Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in California. There are also key engineering challenges associated with moving water at a rate of 9,000 cubic feet per second – enough volume to fill more than 8,800 Olympic-sized swimming pools each day – through 35 miles of tunnels.

The Delta is the largest estuary on the West Coast of the United States and the heart of the state’s extensive water supply and conveyance system. Vital to California’s economy – it would be the fifth largest in the world if it were a separate country – the Delta provides potable water to more than two-thirds of the state’s 38 million residents and irrigates approximately 3 million acres of farm lands in the nation’s top agricultural-producing state. The Delta is also a rich and productive habitat for more than 500 species of wildlife, and its unique ecosystem supports 20 endangered species.

However, the Delta’s ecosystem is declining, which has led to historic restrictions in water supply deliveries. The result is a pressing need to improve the Delta environment and improve the water systems that help sustain the state’s economy.

Both DHCCP and BDCP are aimed at achieving the co-equal goal of water supply reliability and a sustainable in-Delta ecosystem. However, these programs include many participants with different interests. Water contractors and the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) are focused on stabilizing the water diversion. Environmental groups want to restore and add to the Delta’s original habitat. Cities and farmers throughout the state, including those in the Delta itself, need reliable and predictable water supplies.

Agencies are collaborating to develop the Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Impact Statement that will evaluate ecosystem restoration, water conveyance and other stressors identified by the BDCP. They are also working through the environmental review process under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The public outreach team is focused on providing information, and all teams are focused on their roles as they align with the overall comprehensive plan and strategy.

So, in a program with so many stakeholders and impacts reaching from the state’s robust agricultural and tourism industries to the Delta’s delicate network of flora and fauna, tools and teams must work in unison to link all of the factions together in such a complex project.

Something has to connect the dots.

Changing Roles on the DHCCP Team

In 2008, Black & Veatch was among a number of consultants contracted to assist with the DHCCP. The company’s role included project management, engineering services and geographic information systems (GIS). GIS is a collection of data tools and processes that allow users to create interactive searches, analyze spatial information, edit data, develop maps and present the results of each of these activities.

Five years later, almost all of the roles and faces have changed. New subject matter experts have transitioned into leading roles for the project. Yet in the face of this change, Black & Veatch’s GIS team remains on the project as the senior consulting staff – the last of the original consultants working under a DHCCP contract.

Led by Black & Veatch, GIS has become the primary data management tool for all disciplines for both DHCCP and BDCP. In fact, the GIS for DHCCP and BDCP is being developed as a footprint – a pilot program in actuality – of a DWR enterprise-wide initiative. At the end of construction, a completed GIS database, documenting the life history of the project, will be embedded into the client system architecture for ongoing use.

“GIS is the hub for the project,” said Diana Cregar, Black & Veatch’s GIS Implementation Consultant managing the GIS team on the DHCCP. “Everybody – from engineering to management decision-making – comes through our GIS team. It’s truly a centralized information system, and we’re adding to it all the time.”

What is GIS?

To simplify, think of GIS as a system of maps with intersecting layers – all backed by a warehouse full of data. One map contains information relating to construction footprints and facilities; another shows land ownership, boundaries, buildings and other details. Another map would depict real estate conservation easements and temporary entry permits. Others show collected environmental field species, geotechnical borings, water permits and geopolitical boundaries.

Then comes the full potential.

“The real power of GIS,” says Paul Ginther, Director of GIS in Black & Veatch’s water business, “is the ability to bring together volumes of information to relate and analyze between all the different datasets, and to visualize it based on location.”

GIS provides the ability to connect those dots.

Solving Challenges

For the BDCP program and on projects elsewhere, GIS serves as a central repository of information that enhances coordination and fosters communication. Various teams can view the data of other teams, analyze their segments, and make informed decisions.

For example, Cregar said, using environmental data, engineering teams can avoid disturbing habitats of endangered species. GIS information helped to assess multiple land parcels and agricultural areas. It’s been a critical tool for public engagement and targeted outreach.

“With GIS, we can produce answers quickly and accurately, validate them across multiple disciplines, and create figures or maps with short lead time, even on the spot,” Cregar said. “It’s the core production operation for a majority of the required documents and reports.”

From a historical standpoint, the system is able to follow prior history of facilities design, avoidance areas, impact widths and terminology for complex engineering data. Teams are able to compare different alignment scenarios, such as intake and storage locations, as well as tunnel alignment design and geotechnical drilling location options for the anticipated final design.

NEPA and CEQA require a project archive – an official administrative record – be maintained, and GIS brings the ability to provide an accurate running history of the project at any given point in time, Ginther said. Like the evolution of the project, the GIS data set and reporting tools have evolved to meet a variety of engineering, environmental and administrative needs. It’s also anticipated that GIS will even be used to legally defend project decisions made by multiple subject matter experts.

From the ecosystem to the court room, and from land ownership issues to extreme engineering challenges, GIS is setting a foundation as BDCP strives to balance the needs of California’s human and economic needs in restoring a healthy Delta ecosystem. Ginther said organizations with basic needs to those facing unusually complex and multi-faceted infrastructure programs should consider the many benefits of using GIS. 

“GIS provides everything relative to decisions and locations,” Ginther said. “In programs like the DHCCP and BDCP, with so many complex factors, potential impacts and involvement from numerous federal, state and local agencies and stakeholders, you can see how GIS can be immensely valuable as a common graphical database to help justify the best possible decisions for all involved.”

Delta Proposal Calls for 35-Mile Long Twin Tunnels

For decades, water has been drawn entirely through the Delta to pumps at the south end before being diverted to approximately 25 million Californians and more than 3 million acres of farmland. However, that supply system has been curtailed due to its environmental and aquatic habitat impacts on numerous endangered or threatened species of fish and other wildlife.

In July 2012, California Gov. Jerry Brown and then-U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar unveiled a BDCP proposal that would change the point of water diversion from the south end of the Delta to the north. That alteration could lessen the impact of pumps to better balance the needs of fish and wildlife with California’s human and economic needs, officials said.

The diversion point would consist of three intake facilities on the Sacramento River, near Hood, Calif., that could divert 9,000 cubic feet of water per second into a twin-tunnel system. The proposed tunnels, each approximately 33 feet wide and 35 miles long, would run beneath the Delta and feed into the existing pumps on the south side. Once water reaches a pumping station in Tracy, Calif., it would be routed through existing canals to farms and cities, such as Los Angeles and San Diego.

Federal and state officials haven’t made a final decision on the plan. The proposal, which also calls for more than 100,000 acres of floodplain and tidal marsh habitat restoration, is being refined and reviewed in a rigorous environmental review process.

Opposition stems from Delta ecosystem concerns, the proposed project’s construction footprint, costs and in-Delta economic impacts. The current proposed project would cost an estimated $18 billion and could take approximately 10 years to construct.

GIS Helps City in England Guide Water Main Project

Geographic information system (GIS) technology has been used in an innovative manner to help minimise the impact on customers during the laying of a 10km water main through a major city in England. The Project Risk Optimisation Visualisation Engine (PROVE), was developed to represent visually the client’s entire programme of work in the city spatially and over time. In essence it was possible to see where on the ground work occurred, or was planned, for any given time – past, present and future.

Where customer outcomes are to the fore, this sort of tool can help significantly in the management of disruption and reducing the impact of work. PROVE’s databases included information about customers with special needs, both domestic and commercial, as well as vital community resources such as hospitals and schools.

By combining this information with a risk rating score, it was possible to readily assess the consequences of activity on the ground. Because the tool carried information of historic as well as forthcoming work, it highlighted which areas of the city were subject to intensive activity and enabled coordination of separate projects in a manner that reduced disruption. PROVE is based upon software widely used across the water industry, such as Microsoft Project and Access, as well as Google Earth.

GIS technology is also at the heart of the Pipeline Routing Optimisation Method (PROM). The method is currently used by five water and sewerage companies. Looking toward AMP6, the method’s ability to quickly generate pipeline routes that reflect specific priorities is likely to be useful at a time when outcomes need to reflect a range of differing customer priorities.

PROM allows different weightings to be assigned to factors which affect pipeline routes – for example, environmental designations, geology, buried utilities, hydrology and pumping requirements. Weighting can be customised to reflect things that customer consultations show are valued. The method quickly provides high-level routes which rapidly broaden choices at the optioneering stage.


Subject Matter Experts
Paul Ginther:
Diana Cregar:

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