North Dakota State Water Commission

The State Water Commission regulates the use of water resources in North Dakota. Understanding the state of water resources, communicating that information to the public and scientists, and planning for future water uses requires the gathering and management of a great deal of spatial data.

Around 2001, the SWC began a migration to a 100% ESRI platform: ArcSDE on the database server, ArcIMS publishing maps, and ArcMap on the desktops. The migration would require the acquisition of a number of software licenses over a number of years — a capital-intensive process. However, in 2003 the State legislature brought in budget cutbacks, and rather than receiving a budget increase to support their technology plans the Commission actually received a budget cutback. The result was a $500,000 shortfall that brought a complete halt to the migration plan.

The SWC needed a new plan that would fit their new fiscal reality: funding would not be available for large capital acquisitions, but new functionality was needed to support the business of the Commission.

They began exploring options, and came upon PostGIS/PostgreSQL and the UMN Mapserver as a combination of tools which could meet their immediate data management and mapping needs. The open source tools could be deployed and scaled without incurring large licensing overhead, which meant that scarce resources could instead be devoted to physical infrastructure — computer hardware and staff to maintain it.

The SWC first replaced ArcIMS with UMN Mapserver. This provided high performance access through a web application to their spatial data to both internal and external clients. However, because they were publishing spatial data to Mapserver via shape files, the system required frequent manual intervention to keep up-to-date.

4D Desktop Application

Adding PostgreSQL and the PostGIS spatial extension to their infrastructure allowed SWC to integrate their spatial and non-spatial data into a single management environment. SWC already had an existing desktop client/server system for managing their non-spatial data. By integrating their data in PostgreSQL/PostGIS, their existing desktop non-spatial tools could work with the same datadase that their web-based publication system used.

Web mappingn interface

One thing SWC noticed early on was that the new open source software was much easier to bring online and work with. In particular, upgrading components of the infrastructure has been much smoother than with the previous proprietary software.

The SWC web mapping application provides access to 31,000 well sites, 2,000,000 water level records and 54,000 chemistry analyses. These data are used by the general public, through the web mapping application, and by internal and external hydrologic experts who can download and analyze the data directly.

The SWC development team consists of just three staff, yet over the past 2 years, they have completed all the functionality planned for the original ESRI migration and are now tackling applications that were not conceivable back then.

Chris Bader has led the team through the transition. "At this point, the open source infrastructure is integrated through every aspect of our data management", says Bader, "For the first time, we no longer face the uncertainty tied to the political budgeting process, and we do not see any limits to what we can accomplish." With that the core infrastructure is in place, the team can focus on analytical tools to provide the necessary knowledge for management of North Dakota's water resources.

The team is now looking at other open source tools to bring to the infrastructure to enhance the functionality to include the generation of potentiometric surface maps, display of complex spatio-temporal trends, and other "high end" analytical functions. Because the database infrastructure is standards based, the development team can also open up data access to power users in the Commission. One of the staff hydrologists is now developing interfaces using Python to drive common groundwater models that automatically extract data from the central PostgreSQL database.

For more information:

Chris Bader
North Dakota State Water Commission

Published August 2006

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