By Michael A. Clifford, PLS, Principal, DGT Associates and Michael A. Twohig, Director of Subsurface Utility Mapping, DGT Associates
Few practicing land surveyors in the year 2019 need an introduction to Subsurface Utility Engineering, AKA “SUE.” Seminars on the topic are routine at MALSCE and other state society-sponsored conferences, and articles are regularly posted in industry periodicals. And in recent years SUE requirements are showing up in projects beyond the federally-funded infrastructure projects where specifications for the task have been embedded for many years.
SUE – a Short History
The modern-day efforts to improve mapping of underground facilities and to standardize the methods of both locating and mapping buried utilities began in the 1980s, driven by a universal frustration in the design and construction industries over the varying accuracy and usefulness of existing utility mapping. The practice of collecting, recording and managing subsurface data has historically been an unregulated endeavor. The prevailing standard of care had for many years had been the familiar–and still most common–surveyors’ practice of gathering all available underground data, locating surface features (such as manholes and gate covers) and, to use a non-scientific term, “connect the dots.” The overall problem however is that the greater industry lacked a system to categorize this and other less-rigorous approaches. In many cases a project designer could not tell if the utility mapping presented to them came from actual rigorous research combined with on-the-ground surveys or form a random gathering of data with little or no attempt at ground-truthing. It was in this world that the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Construction Institute in 2002 published a new set of standards, CI/ ASCE 38-02: Guideline for the Collection and Depiction of Existing Subsurface Utility Data. Many countries have since followed the lead of the US in drafting their own standards.
Not surprisingly there has been an on-going discussion among SUE practitioners and procurers over who exactly is qualified to provide the service. A well-planned and executed utility locating and mapping program will involve experts from a cross-section of allied professions: utility engineers, surveyors, geodesists, CAD technicians, geophysicists, geotechnical engineers GIS specialists, civil engineers, and right-of-way managers all offer essential knowledge and expertise.
The Surveyor’s Domain
Engineering, the ”E” in SUE connotes a specific activity that is confined to licensed professional engineers, yet The ASCE standards list “utility mapping at appropriate quality levels” as the first activity associated with SUE. In our profession of course we recognize this as the surveyor’s job. The International Federation of Surveyors (FIG) Definition of the Functions of the Surveyor states that ”The surveyor’s professional tasks may involve … activities which may occur either on, above or below the surface of the land or the sea and may be carried out in association with other professionals.” The first and core activity involved in SUE—mapping—is thus performed by surveyors. In this light, SUE can be seen as not a totally new discipline but rather an extension of an existing one: surveying utilities and other assets in the underground environment have been discovered and documented by surveyors since the discipline of land surveying began to separate itself form the civil engineering discipline in the 1800s. Surveyors are usually the first on site for a project, and they have been recording what’s beneath our feet and communicating it to their partners—including engineers—since long before SUE was established in the industry lexicon with the FHWA’s official promulgation.
Where We Are Now
The discipline of professional utility locating and mapping is growing, as is the discussion of its oversight, supervision, licensure, regulation and certification. While professional engineers and surveyors discuss their respective involvement, the GIS community has joined the conversation now that many asset owners looking to ground-truthed geodatabases to minimize the inaccurate utility data that is often confusing and unreliable. The responsible-charge waters are further muddied by the technological advancements of GPS-enabled utility locating devices supported with cloud-based data collection programs.
Whatever the outcome, I feel that the need for professional land surveyors to embrace this new era where Subsurface Utility Mapping is being perceived in a new light, and the value of the surveyor’s unique skills and services to our clients not only makes good financial sense but leads to improved good risk management decisions. In an era where it is challenging for established land survey firms to find and attract new talent the growth of SUM provides an opportunity to embrace the new technologies and merge the emerging best practices with traditional surveying skills to better serve our clients.
In the late 1800s Boston survey professionals embraced surveying above and below ground to build the first US subway systems. Now, as then, it may be time to reconsider the role of land surveyors in mapping infrastructure and hold true to the definition of land surveyors activities that “…occur either on, above or below the surface of the land or the sea.”
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