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The MS4 outfall inventory management system includes an MS Access database to input and store data. Users can import the data into Google Earth to create customized maps. Photo: DLZ OHIO Inc.

Everyone touts the benefits of a GIS. But vendors sometimes gloss over the painstaking and time-consuming steps required to develop a viable system—gathering and inputting the reference points for each and every asset and importing that location information into a mapping program—and the expertise required to set up a geo-database and run queries.

It can take years to become skilled in GIS applications.

When faced with a March federal deadline for developing a program to manage storm sewer discharges, the public service department of Pataskala, Ohio, had neither the time nor the resources to complete a key step: mapping stormwater outfalls.

The 12,000-resident city doesn't have an income tax, so departments are chronically under-funded, says Alison Terry, former director of planning and former assistant to the city administrator, floodplain manager, and stormwater manager. So the department asked local engineering, architectural, and environmental consulting firm—and former “city engineer”—DLZ OHIO Inc. for a solution.

DLZ created an outfall inventory management system that allows owners of municipal separate stormwater sewer systems (MS4) to map stormwater outfall data without investing in GIS software, hardware, and technicians. The system includes an MS Access database that can be used with GIS tools provided by Google Earth.

Instead of sending employees into the field to gather the data with GPS equipment that it didn't have and would have to buy, the department paid the firm a one-time fee of $102,000 to collect and input all information regarding the outfall system. During the course of the three-year project, DLZ also helped write a city ordinance to meet National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System MS4 requirements.

The next step: import the database into a GIS to map the outfall inventory. Rather than pay an additional $10,000 to $15,000 for a GIS, and hire a GIS specialist, the city paid $400 to use Google Earth Pro for one year.

Designed for commercial use, Google Earth Pro combines Google's search engine with satellite imagery, maps, terrain, and 3-D buildings, so that anyone with a PC and an Internet connection can access the world's geographic information. The interface provides base layers, allows users to pan and zoom to a specified location, and lets them print maps.

DLZ converted the outfall inventory into a KML (Keyhole Markup Language) file, which is overlayed into Google Earth as an additional layer to create outfall maps.

Typically, a trained GIS operator must collect base layers, import the outfall inventory, and create maps. But with Google Earth Pro and the DLZ database, these steps are done automatically every time the application is launched. Plus, it takes less than an hour to become an expert on using it.

“It cannot get any simpler,” says Mel Meng, PE, an environmental engineer with DLZ.

The system comes in two versions: Web and standalone. The Web-based application stores the outfall inventory in a database on DLZ's server, which clients access through Internet Explorer. With the standalone application, clients keep a copy of the database on their own desk-or laptop computers.