Washington State Department of Ecology: A Case of Water Rights for All

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The Problem in-Depth

Water rights permits ensure careful conservation of this precious resource but are not something most of us think about. Nevertheless, it is a careful melding of law and hydrogeology, the area of geology that deals with the distribution and movement of groundwater beneath Earth's crust.

Each water rights permit issued by the Water Resources Program involves legal language and details that specify unique locations, limits, and quantities. Some information and wording are standard in most permits, but some vary. Other case-specific information and data are pulled from documents and databases that often reside in various locations. This is where a mistake or typographical error can lead to confusion, disputes, or even legal action, as well as the time that accompanies resolving these situations.

Prior to partnering with ActiveDocs, the program was using basic templates in Microsoft Word that would be disseminated to employees but not necessarily kept in one central location. These documents would then evolve with staff members implementing their own changes, leading to many different versions. Employees were often unsure whether or not they were using the correct, most recent version or the official language du jour. With regional offices across the state, there was an even greater chance that varying templates would be created.

"In the past, as revised templates were distributed to a separate location, it was like the Galápagos Islands and Darwin's finches-they would evolve ... and over time they would acquire different beaks!" says Jeff Marti, environmental planner at the Washington Department of Ecology, Water Resources Program.

However, it was not only potential inaccuracies and multiple templates that posed a concern. There was also the question of efficiency. Much of the content needed to complete a permit document lived in many locations-local drives, shared drives, databases, etc. Water Resources Program employees would spend a good deal of time simply hunting for the information as part of the process of creating the document, and then even more time transposing or cutting and pasting.

Clearly, the process is a complex one, but it was made even more so by the way the Water Resources Program was operating. It needed a solution that would eliminate errors, provide consistency, and improve efficiency but that could also be implemented across multiple locations.

The Solution

ec case fig 2The Water Resources Program found the answer to its problems in ActiveDocs and the company’s document automation software suites. In 2006, the program implemented the ActiveDocs Desktop suite and graduated to ActiveDocs Opus a few years later.

With the ActiveDocs Opus system, the most recent water permit templates, approved text, and other information now live in a centralized location on the Water Resources Program’s ActiveDocs server. Staff from the main office and regional offices now access the same templates and information, maintaining consistency throughout the program. “There’s one golden version of the language that everyone in the regional offices use, so they’re always getting the correct content,” Marti says.

To assist the Water Resources Program further, wizards assist employees in compiling the document with automatic population of data from various sources into the water permits. Users can also search databases via “queries” from the document system, Microsoft Word, or Outlook. The ActiveDocs Opus system also works on open architecture, allowing it to connect with other systems such as SharePoint or databases or public applications such as Google Maps, allowing content housed there to be implemented into document templates.

These functions keep staff from searching through various documents and databases for this information, saving time and eliminating cut-and-paste and retyping errors, potentially heading off future legal disputes and complications.

“I think the time saved [when creating a document] can range anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes to hours to even a day or more, depending on the document type,” Marti said. “One thing in particular I’ve noticed is that if you automate tables for employees, that can save a lot of time because employees have different skill levels with creating tables in Word. With ActiveDocs, a user can insert a well-designed, prepopulated table into Word in a matter of seconds, and Kelsey’s table will look just like Buck’s table.”

Initial implementation for the Water Resources Program did not take long—less than a couple of weeks. However, “Implementation is a little bit like a piece of string. It can be a matter of days or weeks or longer. Much depends on the template shape starting out. The Water Resources Program was in good shape with [its] documents,” according to Faine Mende, president of North American operations for ActiveDocs.

Washington State’s Water Resources Program had few problems with integrating the program into its system, but changing employee practices was a little more difficult. “Challenges have been less technological than cultural … as we automate documents, we’re taking that canvas away and saying, essentially, from now on I want you to color inside the lines. On the other hand, it allows employees to use their brains and time for more important things,” Marti said.

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