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Aerial image bank details Washington landscape, used for many purposes

From the hills of the Palouse to the high peaks of the Olympics, and nearly every city and township in between, the nooks and crannies of Washington state are being photographed in bullseye detail. 

The aerial imagery is so sharp that it is being relied upon by both state and local governments for everything from verifying on-the-ground land survey data to water use planning.

Access to the imagery is available to those who need the digital data the most: a partnership that includes 21 county governments, six state agencies, the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and emergency personnel.

This massive digital scrapbook is stored in the Washington State Cloud, a high-volume data storage service managed by Washington Technology Solutions (WaTech). The imagery program itself is managed by State GIS Coordinator Joanne Markert, who works for the Office of the Chief Information Officer within WaTech.

Markert is telling the Washington state story on imagery use at a national conference of GIS professionals in Louisville, KY in early March. Washington’s partnership represents one of the most advanced imagery systems in the nation.

The images help state agencies make land and water use decisions, saving significant time and resources.              

The high-resolution photographs saved the state Department of Ecology “hundreds of hours of field work to identify and quantify potential sources of copper and zinc contamination,” said Ecology GIS Manager Christina Kellum. Ecology also uses the photographs in a variety of other ways in assessing land use: digitizing building footprints, locating street lights and even determining the length of chain link fencing.

Other common uses by Ecology include observing where channels move over time as well as watershed planning, the initial inspection of areas where the agency has received complaints about water quality, permitting water rights and dam safety assessments.

Engineers and technicians at the Washington State Department of Transportation use the state’s central photo bank for preliminary engineering and design of road and highway projects, locating real estate and asset management for rail projects, and even for public outreach when displays are needed to help citizens visualize the impacts of proposed projects.

Emergency management personnel access the imagery for planning and for pinpointing houses and other buildings during an emergency response. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR), for example, uses the images for wildfire planning and for structure location in woodlands while wildfires are raging.

The images are compiled, organized and licensed by a state-contracted vendor in Spokane working in coordination with a national firm that flies fixed-wing aircraft across Washington each year. They vary in resolution. Some are what industry professionals call “one-foot,” where each pixel of imagery equates to one square foot on the ground. Those images are used for general purpose regional planning, versus a six-inch-per-pixel resolution that is sharp enough to view culverts and property line fences in detail.

DNR also plays a crucial role in the program by converting the imagery into useable formats for the state and its partners.  

While there are other services that also provide high-resolution imagery, they do not provide the same consistent coverage that is needed by the state hence the need to license statewide imagery.

Each member of the partnership contributes to the cost. In return, they can download and process the images for their own use and develop their own applications, depending on their needs.

The partnership promotes consistency for all public planning uses.

“You know if you’re in Snohomish County you’ll get the same quality and general timeframe of imagery as in Wahkiakum or Asotin counties,” said Markert.

The future of management by imagery will continue to improve with the development of new technologies and techniques. One agency showed how in assessing views of a recreational vehicle park for water rights assessment, an image taken in the 1990s was so foggy that one could hardly make out the RVs below. A more recent image clearly showed each RV parked neatly in line.

“It’s a robust dataset that helps government agencies efficiently serve our communities and it is expected to only get better over time,” Markert said.

More about the statewide imagery service is available on the OCIO website