Software Tools for Erosion Control
Specialists can work faster and compare options on a variety of projects.
By Carol Brzozowski
It's cliché, but a picture is worth a thousand words. And the pictures being provided through mapping and modeling software programs that specialists throughout the United States are now coming to rely upon are saving municipalities and private concerns thousands of dollars in time and resources.
Consider Dyer, IN, where Stormwater Director and GIS Specialist Bryan Lane has spent years using geographical information system (GIS) technology to map out the town's stormwater system. A relatively small town of 18,000 residents, Dyer has always striven to be on the cutting edge of technology. The town began using an underground televising program in 1993. Shortly thereafter, it entered into GIS technology.
Lane has essentially used the technology to map out the city's stormwater system, as well as its sanitary sewer system. A successful approach has been realized by pairing GIS technology with underground televising. The result: Through the city's in-house mapping and underground televising, city officials are not only able to more quickly locate system components, but also to identify problem areas in need of repair.
Geographical information systems have three major components: hardware (a computer or network of computers), software, and data. Dyer uses ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute) software, the predominant type on the market. The data are generated from the input that Lane and others in Dyer have incorporated into the system to produce a map of the city's infrastructures.
Studies show more than 2 million people use GIS software as a tool to gather information to model and map systems for the purposes of designing, planning, building, and maintaining infrastructures.
GIS technology uses geography to view and analyze data as a part of an organization's overall information system. Users choose what layers to combine based on needs. Among its many functions, GIS technology offers users the opportunity to perform spatial analysis and modeling and measure change.
Lane says that when Dyer officials invested in the GIS technology, it was for the purpose of mapping out the town's infrastructure because they wanted to be ahead of the game. But with permitting calling for mapping, it's made that goal more of an imperative. Lane has used the ESRI software to record some 4,000 storm structures, including catch basins and solid manhole covers. The town has also gone through many of the structures with closed-circuit underground television equipment.
"We use it every day," Lane says. "You can just pick up the computer right away, click on something, and find the footage you need without having to go look through maps, such as the paper maps we've got lying in the back room."
When Dyer first got the GIS software, Lane and other workers used the town's paper maps as a baseline. They used the portable technology to record the points on the maps. "When we retrieve points from out in the field, it's all done on a small handheld unit," he says. "You stand on whatever you are looking for, such as a sanitary manhole, click a few buttons, and it will prompt for some attributes: Is it buried? Unburied? What kind of cover does it have? Is it in the parkway, the curb line, the street? "
"You punch in a few buttons with the information, bring it back to the shop, and download it into the computer, and it will pop those points up and overlay them on our base map of the town, and they'll be right where they are in real life out there."
Lane says the GIS also is used in new subdivisions where erosion control measures are being established. Once owners get occupancy of their buildings, Lane uses the GIS mapping to show landscapers where storm manhole covers and catch basins are located so they won't bury them in the process of setting up the foliage. He has also used the GIS to tag buried manholes and generate mailing lists.
"We can use it for all kinds of work, Lane says. "Not only storm lines, but water lines, sanitary lines, street lights, fire hydrants, water valves—so we know what we've got in that area when we are working with something. You can do measurements right there and get a good idea of what kind of distances you are talking about when any kind of work needs to be done."
Lane also has the capability of e-mailing a portable document format map to anyone capable of receiving it. The maps are posted on Dyer's Web site. "You can click on an icon to open the program, and then it will ask what you want as far as parcels, street names," Lane says. As with many other user interfaces, he notes, "There's a magnifying glass you can hit that will zoom in on certain properties. There's an identifier button that, depending what you click on, will give you information on how many feet, material, pipe size."
While the software and televising are used as part of a two-pronged approach, Lane says Dyer is in the process of upgrading its technology so that the cameras and GIS can better "talk to each other; currently, the information recorded by the cameras is captured only on VHS tape." Dyer also uses aerial photography, which helps in locating certain landmarks for the pipe system, enabling officials to know whether excavation is necessary for repair.
As the town's stormwater director, Lane says the software helps him attain his goals of water quality in that it helps him find bad spots, refer to a map to see everything that ties into the area, and trace problems back to the source. "It's good to get an idea of what you've got in terms of sizes and lengths and start chipping away at replacing or repairing all these lines, he says. Many of the lines are 50 years old and had been built as combination sanitary and storm sewers.
Through pairing underground televising with the software mapping, Lane and his crew have been able to find infiltration problems and correct them. The cameras also identify cross connections, whether the sanitary was tied into the storm, or the storm into the sanitary.
Dyer also has two global positioning system (GPS) units. "When the developers turn in their plans electronically to us, I can take one of those CDs using our software into our GIS and it will overlie right on top," Lane says. "We also go out with the handheld units as soon as the stuff is put in, and we'll go stand by each feature and shoot it with the GPS, so when we come back to the office, we can download it into the computer and where it lies pops up geographically on the base map. After that, city workers will pop the lids to get invert elevation of pipes, which is used by the underground televising crew and the cleaning truck."
"It seems we get better accuracy on taps—like a storm tap—for a house when we have the televised information, Lane says. "We also use the camera to find a lot of root problems. With the software, we can highlight those lines that will pop up and attach work orders to them."
For long-range planning, the software enables Lane to view the open spaces where development possibilities still exist. "We use the GIS for all of our existing land use and future plan land use," he says. "Our planning commission uses it a lot to get information. For rehabilitation, we're going to be able to use it a lot to see what areas are bad, what needs to be fixed, find older manholes, buried manholes—wherever we need to raise. This helps the municipality budget appropriately for rehabilitation and maintenance, so it can avoid dealing with more costly emergency repairs."
Lane says more people in his department are getting trained to use the software. "Erosion control is a really big deal and getting bigger, especially with all of this permitting," he says. "We are now in the process of trying to get some added training for our guys on what to look for. I've taken pictures recently of a place that had some erosion control problems, and you can attach those and put them on a map to show whomever you send it to—a builder or developer. It makes it easier, because often they can't make it out there at the same time you do, and this way they have a nice map with pictures."
Lane says the learning curve for the software is fairly easy. "Software can do a lot of things, and there probably is a lot I probably don't know how to do really well," he says. Lane has learned on the job, but points out that there are classes available for people to sharpen their skills. "Anyone can view it, move it around, add layers, subtract layers," he says.
Erosion control also is a concern for Warren Corwin of Corwin Engineering in Dallas, TX. He designs sites for residential subdivisions and finds software tools help him explore the options for erosion control measures and locations. He uses software from SediMentor in Murphy, TX, which is designed to help civil engineers develop an erosion and sediment control plan using methodologies accepted by the EPA, incorporating the Universal Soil Loss Equation, peak flow rate for filtration controls, sedimentation based on 3,600 cubic feet of storage per disturbed acre, and overall site rating based on control capacity and removal efficiency.
"By using it, we can place different erosion controls in different locations to get value engineering feedback from the program as to which controls are going to do the best job," Corwin says. He notes that before using the software, he could not gauge how a particular control would perform except by going onsite.
"This actually gives us feedback as to what's going to happen in the field, he says. "Do you put a rock dam here, or do you put up a silt fence? It gives a computer model of what's really going to happen.
"A lot of times, we'll place controls and then after the first rain, we'll go see what it did and upgrade the controls after we've got an onsite look at what happened. With this modeling, it will tell you what should happen. It just gives us a lot more confidence in the controls we choose and the locations we put them in."
In Alaska, Elaine Mayer, a habitat restoration biologist for Alaska Fish and Wildlife who does streambank restoration and erosion control along streambanks, has been using RIVERMorph software for the past three years to get a picture of what is occurring along a particular streambank. The database-oriented stream restoration software enables its users to store and access channel measurement and reference reach data, perform river assessment and monitoring, and access engineering applications, such as natural channel design. It allows users to store geomorphic data in a single location.
Mayer also is testing another software program, RiverWorks Rapid Assessment System (RWRAS), which integrates digital camera and GPS technologies through a waterproof handheld field computer. The system collects, transfers, analyzes, reports, and shares data. Mayer is using it in conjunction with RIVERMorph.
She uses the RWRAS for doing studies on whole river systems, whereas RIVERMorph comes into play for other projects; for example, at a streambank restoration at the Big Delta State Historical Park involving six cross-sections in a 1,000-foot area, the project contractor used the software.
Another person concerned with stream restoration is Phil Balch, president of the Watershed Institute, a natural resource management service company, in Topeka, KS. He uses E-SenSS software from Salix Applied Earthcare in Redding, CA.
"Our main goals are to help people restore natural communities," says Balch. "We focus on ecosystems and the restoration and naturalization of some of the systems." He specializes in streambank stabilization and stream restoration for government entities and landowners.
E-SenSS is a manual on CD-ROM designed to assist highway engineers, restoration ecologists, watershed hydrologists, biologists, and soil conservationists in designing projects that restore stream and river systems. The CD includes typical design drawings, construction and installation specifications, and photos of sample projects. Categories of techniques include river training, bank armor and protection, riparian buffer and stream corridor opportunities, and slope stabilization.
Among the projects the Watershed Institute is working on is one to help a municipality in the Kansas City area that is trying to restore fish habitat in an urban stream. "Usually it's a stabilization or water-quality project, so this is unique to us, Balch notes. Another project involves getting more than 8 miles of a river system stabilized to increase the fisheries and improve the stream conditions.
Balch says the software is "one of the best collections of methods and helps assist in that goal of stabilizing streambanks and restoring streams". It can even be applied to wetlands in some bioengineering aspects of planting, live staking, and the vegetative field grids. It prompts him to consider what erosion control practices may be applicable in a given situation. He also has used AutoCAD diagrams provided by Salix, tweaking them for his own use.
Balch finds E-SenSS user-friendly. "If you load it onto a laptop, you can take it anywhere you want," he says. "It's all on one disc, so it's very portable. I usually use it in the office more than in the field. I will survey an area and return to the office, get the CAD drawings, and start looking at a design. "
Balch says instead of rewriting everything every time, he uses the software to put together a contractor packet that indicates how erosion control should be installed and how it should look.
"I'm a visual person, so if someone tries to explain something to me, I think, 'What the heck are they talking about?' But I can look at something on paper and say, 'That makes sense.' I relate to others that way—I like to show them a drawing, a diagram or design detail, rather than try to explain it to them."
Balch says the software has saved him a great deal of time on a few projects because he didn't have to start from scratch. "I've been in this business for 15 years, so a lot of things I do, I don't even think about," he says. "But a couple of times where the client has wanted a different approach or structuring, John McCullah of Salix put together a disc for me. It's a great collection of practices and methodologies to get a job done and has been a great reference from that standpoint."
Software is "another tool in our toolbox," says Mike Van Gilder, P.E., CPESC, CPSWQ. He works with Cooper Engineering in Rice Lake, WI, and uses software from American Excelsior Co. in Arlington, TX, for erosion control projects. As a project manager, he splits his time equally between development and municipal projects. He uses ErosionWorks Online software for rainfall and channel analysis and design.
"In general, the software allows us to quantify channel flow, for example. If you are looking at a channel flow situation, you can quantify the sheer stresses you are looking at and from there select an appropriate erosion control product," he says. "The information we get is valuable from a general design parameter. It also makes recommendations from their specific line of products that would be acceptable."
Van Gilder describes a typical application: On a new rural subdivision, the roadways are usually flanked with ditches, and his company will analyze the length of slope at a ditch grade to recommend whether or not one product will withstand the shear stresses or if he needs to bump it up to something sturdier.
Mike Hammitt is a civil engineer technician working for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Ohio. He uses Eagle Point software from Dubuque, IA, for the designing of wet dikes, wetlands, watershed dams, and many aspects of Public Law 566 that pertain to flood prevention and the conservation, development, utilization, and disposal of water. The service also uses Autodesk software for land development.
Hammitt says the Eagle Point software is used equally for addressing runoff and storage issues. "On a normal-start job, we start with a survey using field codes that allow us to utilize line work, which the software would generate for us," Hammitt says. "For example, you shoot in a telephone box and you have that programmed so the software recognizes that it's a telephone box and you have it matched in your legend."
"It saves you time when you are putting the final drawings together. We take the survey and use it to generate models for calculating storage, earth quantities, or concrete quantities, if applicable, and then we customize the software to utilize our standards or guidelines that we like to see our work done to so it provides consistency between jobs as well as expedites them. It's more efficient."
Hammitt says one of the biggest advantages of the software is customizing it to what a company wants. "New users who come on board don't have to spend time creating a whole bunch of prototypes or templates, he says. "It's already done, so in that respect we are looking into the future so that not everybody is reinventing the wheel; they can actually use their time to do better designs. One thing the software does do for us is allow us to do better designs because we are not doing lots of number crunching. We get faster results and analyze alternatives quicker than without the software."
Journalist Carol Brzozowski writes on erosion control and technology.