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Center for Spatial Information and Research

Development of a Geospatial Database for Mapping Water Rights Attributes in the Yakima River Basin


The Yakima River Basin (YRB), a main tributary to the Columbia River, is located in central Washington State, and is one of the few river basins in the western United States that has undergone a full water rights adjudication, a process that determines the volumetric extent and temporal priority of all water rights (Ottem, 2006). Adjudications are protracted, expensive undertakings, but they provide substantive utility to water managers providing clear data on individual water rights. Unfortunately, with the disparate locations in which water is used, data associated with individual rights lacks context—for example the place of use’s proximity to a watercourse or to other water rights (Gould, 1988).

This project developed a pilot online geospatial Decision Support System (DSS) of water rights and their associated attributes for the Kittitas Valley, a large agricultural basin within the YRB. Geospatial Databases are being created for a multitude of land-management purposes including wildfire and fuels management (Schmidt et al, 2002). Several efforts have begun to apply this technology to water management; for example, Colorado’s Department of Water Resources (2009) maintains a DSS, providing graphical display of spatial data related to surface water availability, water resource infrastructure such as dams and canals, and well locations. The Colorado DSS was designed as a practitioner’s resource; its Geographic Information Systems (G.I.S.) software platform lacks a user-friendly interface, and requires expensive software and specialized knowledge to operate. This project blended the full-functionality of a water rights decision support system (multi-scaled maps, simultaneous display of multiple thematic maps, data tables, and data query functions) with the user-friendliness of a web-browser interface.

Washington State’s Department of Ecology (2009) created the early phases of an internet-based water bank for the Upper reach of the YRB entitled the Upper Kittitas Water Exchange. Because of a recent moratorium on the issuance of groundwater permits, this waterbank is one of the few mechanisms by which homeowners can install a new well in portions of Kittitas County. Currently, this bank lacks spatial referencing, undermining its efficacy. A natural nexus could develop between an internet-supported user-friendly geospatial DSS which could display this information graphically and the development of a properly functioning water bank. At a later time, numerous land-use and hydrologic models could be integrated within the database providing transparency in water rights and further enhancing the database’s utility to rural land owners.


In summer of 2010, datasets were obtained from public sources, including the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Kittitas Reclamation District, Washington State Department of Ecology, and the Yakima Basin Salmon Recovery Funding Board, and Google Maps. These datasets included stream gage information, reservoir levels, land-use data, canal locations, and well data, salmon habitat, and river return-flow locations. The layers where first trimmed and clipped to size and using G.I.S. software. Once layers were ready for use, they were imported into a PostgreSQL database. PostgreSQL is an open source spatial database system used as a database management software. The data were then manipulated using SQL statements in order to make the data more user-friendly: data columns were manipulated as well as attribute values (i.e. to get attribute code values into their descriptive values).

Once a spatial database was created, a user interface was created to view the data. First the data from the PostgreSQL database were imported into Geoserver. Because “user-friendliness” was a priority of this project, the Geoserver layers were integrated with Google Maps basemaps that show major physiographic features, topography, and shaded relief. Javascript and html were used for styling the web interface along with the help from the GeoExt Java library to present the user with a familiar “check-box” system with which they could post or remove data layers. The search form was then created using php, which upon a user-entered query would search the PostreSQL database. The php function was programmed to center the map on the location that a user clicks on in the search results. The remaining functions, for example the pop-ups, which contain metadata related to the data displayed in the database, and the zooming and panning functions, were constructed with JavaScript.

Soliciting Feedback

While the database was being created, a survey to elicit voluntary feedback to assess its utility for individual stakeholders and water management institutions was developed. The survey contained 17 questions in two parts. The first section asked a short series of questions concerning the current state of water use and demand in the Kittitas Valley; the second section, asked to evaluate the draft WRDSS. In this section, respondents were asked to comment on the scope, user-friendliness, and utility as mechanism to enhance decisions about water resource use. In this section respondents were also asked to provide general impressions of the database and were asked to make suggestions for the improvement of the database.

Before the survey was administered it was cleared for distribution by the Central Washington University Human Subjects Committee. Upon gaining this approval, federal, state and local agencies involved in water administration in the Kittitas Valley, as well as local irrigation districts were contacted and asked to make their constituents aware of the database and the survey. The Kittitas County Water Purveyors, a consortium of local water managers and stakeholders put a link to both the database and the survey on its website.

Data collection is on-going as the intent of the project is to continue to refine the database by both making modifications per the suggestions from stakeholder feedback, and as additional suitable information is available. Preliminary response data is limited; as with many surveys, a low response rate has been noted, a problem compounded by the fact the survey was made available to stakeholders at the beginning of irrigation season. It is hoped that at the end of irrigation season more stakeholders will have time to participate in the survey. To increase feedback, an additional request for participation in the survey was sent in May, 2011 to a group of irrigators and an irrigation supply company located in Ellensburg, WA was contacted in an effort to inform irrigators of the database.

Preliminary results suggest that the database provides adequate data resolution to provide clarity to water rights in the Kittitas Valley. In addition all of the respondents thus far have either agreed or strongly agreed the database is user-friendly. In addition, two-thirds of respondents have identified that they believe water supplies in the Kittitas Valley to be significantly lower than current demands, suggesting the importance of such a database may increase in upcoming years.