Abstract Background For more than two decades microbiologists have used a highly conserved microbial gene as a phylogenetic marker for bacteria and archaea. The small-subunit ribosomal RNA gene, also known as 16 S rRNA, is encoded by ribosomal DNA, 16 S rDNA, and has provided a powerful comparative tool to microbial ecologists. Over time, the microbial ecology field has matured from small-scale studies in a select number of environments to massive collections of sequence data that are paired with dozens of corresponding collection variables. As the complexity of data and tool sets have grown, the need for flexible automation and maintenance of the core processes of 16 S rDNA sequence analysis has increased correspondingly. Results We present WATERS, an integrated approach for 16 S rDNA analysis that bundles a suite of publicly available 16 S rDNA analysis software tools into a single software package. The "toolkit" includes sequence alignment, chimera removal, OTU determination, taxonomy assignment, phylogentic tree construction as well as a host of ecological analysis and visualization tools. WATERS employs a flexible, collection-oriented 'workflow' approach using the open-source Kepler system as a platform. Conclusions By packaging available software tools into a single automated workflow, WATERS simplifies 16 S rDNA analyses, especially for those without specialized bioinformatics, programming expertise. In addition, WATERS, like some of the newer comprehensive rRNA analysis tools, allows researchers to minimize the time dedicated to carrying out tedious informatics steps and to focus their attention instead on the biological interpretation of the results. One advantage of WATERS over other comprehensive tools is that the use of the Kepler workflow system facilitates result interpretation and reproducibility via a data provenance sub-system. Furthermore, new "actors" can be added to the workflow as desired and we see WATERS as an initial seed for a sizeable and growing repository of interoperable, easy-to-combine tools for asking increasingly complex microbial ecology questions.