Combating soil erosion with technology

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    Project
    Soil erosion inspection and permitting Agency Public Works Office, Soil Erosion Control Division, Macomb County, Mich.

    Product application
    A county agency switches to a web-based, enterprise system and mobile, wireless communication to handle increasing workloads more efficiently.

    Enterprise management systems and mobile technology improve county permit process.

    BY ROBERT P. LEE, PH.D.

    Soil erosion and sedimentation may not be the first thing to arouse fear in people’s minds, but it has become one of the most serious and pressing land management challenges in the United States.

    Additionally, for many state and local governments, sediment is the most significant water pollutant.

    Construction has become the greatest enabler to the soil erosion problem. When land is cleared of vegetation for grading it is the most environmentally dangerous phase of construction because vegetation and topsoil removal creates an exposed area that is particularly susceptible to erosion.

    Many states now have local mandates that require all builders, contractors, and residents to apply for soil erosion permits before any type of construction activity.

    However, this legislation raises a different problem-enforcement. State and local governments are charged with the burden of enforcing soil erosion management programs and regulations.

    Michigan has had success tackling soil erosion issues because the state not only implemented effective legislation, but also recognized how it can employ technology to ease the burden of enforcing regulations.

    In 1972, Michigan’s Soil Erosion and Sedimentation Control Act required anyone planning new construction on a site larger than 1 acre or within 500 feet of a lake or stream to apply for a permit. The law prohibits soil or sediment from leaving the construction site.

    Later programs, such as the 2001 Bill to Protect Michigan’s Rivers & Streams, helped local governments develop their own soil erosion programs. In addition to stricter legislation, counties in Michigan have turned to technology to redesign and invigorate the effectiveness of their soil erosion management programs.

    Macomb County, north of Detroit in southeastern Michigan, experienced a substantial expansion in its population during the last 50 years, growing from 200,000 residents in 1951 to 828,101 in 2005. This resulted in a housing boom and subsequent increases in permit requests, which the Public Works Office could not handle efficiently. For example, in 2003, the last full year for which statistics are available, the office issued 3,548 permits and conducted 19,844 inspections. The county had a mainframe computer program to manage soil erosion permitting and inspection activities, but it was outdated and was not flexible or scalable enough to meet the office’s growing needs.

    Macomb County sought a new soil erosion management system that could automate its permitting and inspection processes and provide centralized access to this information for everyone in the agency. In addition, the county was looking for a web-based platform that would be easy for employees to learn and use.

    The Soil Erosion Control Division of the Public Works Office launched a new, web-based soil erosion management system in October 2004, three months after beginning implementation, and has enjoyed greater efficiency ever since. The software program, Accela Automation, has transformed regular processing by offering an automated solution for employees to track and manage all permitting activities, such as application check-in, plan reviews, fee calculation and collection, and inspections.

    All employees in the Soil Erosion and Sediment Control Division have access to a centralized database, allowing them to share information and data easily across departments.

    Because the system was configured during implementation to match the existing business processes of the Public Works Office, the employees simply had to be trained on the new software application, rather than having to learn an entirely new business process. The system brought immediate relief to workflow management by automating many daily tasks.

    The county took additional steps to streamline the permitting process by empowering its inspection teams with mobile technology that allows them to access permit-related data remotely. By equipping inspectors with portable devices, such as laptops, tablet PCs, or PDAs, inspectors spend more time in the field completing inspections and less time in the office researching permit history or entering inspection results manually from paper forms. Instead, inspectors perform research in the field and enter inspection results on a portable device running the wireless application, Accela Wireless. Results are uploaded to the county’s database in realtime when connectivity is available, or stored in the device and uploaded later when the inspector returns to the office.

    Allowing inspectors to be more productive in the field means that inspections are completed much faster and citizens receive better service from the county.

    Automated solutions Automated solutions can help manage and enforce soil erosion programs and improve the delivery of government services.

    Mobile technology provides additional productivity benefits by streamlining the inspection process and empowering staff with the proper tools in the field to enforce the soil erosion programs that have been created and cultivated so carefully during the past 60 years.

    Robert P. Lee, Ph.D., is president and CEO of Accela, Inc., a Dublin, Calif.-based provider of government enterprise management software solutions. More information about Accela is available at www.accela.com.