NGWA President Discusses Changing Industry, Group’s Future
Change is a rule, and the National Ground Water Association is no exception. Longtime NGWA Chief Executive Officer Kevin McCray leaves the group in 2017. It is trying out a “co-show” concept with the Irrigation Association at its annual event in Las Vegas this month. The event, formally known as Groundwater Expo, has taken on the more expansive name “Groundwater Week.” With all these changes going on, we decided to reach out to NGWA President Jeffrey W. Williams, MGWC, CVCLD.
Williams works as vice president of Spafford & Sons Water Wells in Williston, Vt. He has worked more than 36 years in the groundwater industry, with little of that time spent on the sidelines. He has served the industry at the state and, later, national level since the late 1980s — culminating in his current position at NGWA. We spoke about the group’s search for its next CEO, the future of NGWA, and the present and future of the groundwater industry.
Our conversation here has been edited for space and clarity.
Q. First off, how did you get into the groundwater business?
A. When I was a kid, I used to go out with my father on the drilling rig during the summers. I always liked the sounds of the two-stroke Detroit up on the deck — all that horsepower, everything flying around, the size of the equipment. I’ve just always been a hands-on kind of guy and just enjoyed my days out in the field. I get a lot of satisfaction from doing things with my hands. I may not have been the best student ever, if you put me in a classroom. But give me something to figure out and we probably could see our way to the other end of it.
Q. NGWA CEO Kevin McCray is stepping down soon. What criteria is the group considering as it ramps up a search for a replacement?
A. NGWA, even though it’s a non-profit, it’s still a business and we need someone to carry on where Kevin leaves off in the ability to be able to communicate, to manage people, invest themselves heavily in the mission of the National Ground Water Association, as Kevin has, be able to manage many tasks at once. A lot of us aren’t multitaskers, but this position requires that you are one. Just be that face to our organization.
Kind of as a side note here, maybe [the ability to] deal with a different personality every 12 months as their board president. That may be the biggest challenge of all [laughs]. There’s so many things that go along with it. NGWA is a more than $5 million a year business that has a product to deliver and NGWA’s mission is advancing groundwater knowledge. That’s what it’s all about. And then all the things that come along with that. You have X amount of dollars to work with and you have to deliver the product to your membership the way they expect you to deliver. That takes a lot of diligence. It takes a lot of good people and a lot of hard work.
Q. What do you expect NGWA to look like in five years?
A. Hopefully we’re an even more robust organization and association than we are today, that we’re delivering the products that continue to keep our members profitable and knowledgeable, professional out in the field. We certainly have a strategy of being adaptable and strategic in our thought processes, and I think that that helps us. It’s difficult sometimes to really see the forest through the trees — to really be able to be visionaries. It takes some help and guidance, and hopefully our next CEO and leader of the NGWA will have that same vision and guidance quality that Kevin has.
Q. NGWA’s annual expo has a new name, Groundwater Week. Can you talk a bit about that change and what’s behind it?
A. Groundwater Week is just more encompassing, instead of Groundwater Expo. You go to an expo to see things. Hopefully, you go to Groundwater Week to experience things. As we all encompass all of our sections here at NGWA, we’re working toward Nashville in 2017 to have as many of our science and engineer section members there — along with our contractor members — and create a really diverse learning opportunity. I think that’s kind of what started the name change, to make it something that encompasses everything that we do more completely.
Q. Part of Groundwater Week 2016 is that it’s a co-located event, with NGWA sharing the trade show floor with the Irrigation Association’s annual expo. How have members reacted to the pairing?
A. So far, everything is very positive. You pay your admission fee and you get to see double the square footage, or whatever that might turn out to be. You see products from other industries. I would think that that would be a great opportunity. Nothing absolutely is being taken away from what we have done in the past in Groundwater Week. Our educational lineup is very robust this year and our booth sales are up — all indications are that we’re going to have a fantastic event.
Q. Is the pairing a one-off? Or will it continue in Nashville in 2017? Or when Groundwater Week returns to Las Vegas in 2018?
A. It’s a one-off right now. There are certainly a lot of other ideas and talking going on. But, as of now, nothing to report.
Q. What are the strongest points of overlap between the NGWA and the Irrigation Association?
A. Well, the Irrigation Association, they use groundwater — a lot of groundwater — to irrigate with. Especially if you get into large irrigation, whether it be farmland, agriculture, whether it’s golf courses, or parks, you name it. They’re groundwater users, and some of the things that we do certainly overlap with the Irrigation Association. We supply the water that they put out on the ground.
Q. Let’s talk about your presentation at this year’s Groundwater Week, which focuses on hydrofracturing. For those who don’t know, what is that?
A. Well, hydraulic fracturing and hydrofracturing — we fought with these two terms here for quite some time. I have been on the hydraulic fracturing task force and certainly been part of it. I have quite a lot of hands-on experience with hydrofracking in the field. Stuart Smith (a hydrogeologist and longtime NGWA volunteer) is revising the manual and was part of the creation of that manual, and we’re going to co-present this and I’m going to try to pick up all the hands-on kind of stuff, the mechanical things there and assist him in that way. It’s going to be a co-presentation.
Q. What are hydrofracturing’s advantages for well development or redevelopment?
A. It can save you from drilling another well, certainly increasing flow rates and supply on an existing well. As a practice in our company, you get to a well that has depth enough and has the potential for hydrofracking and it could bring it back to better or at least to its original production or, most of the time, better than its original production — and more sustainable. We have a lot of fairly deep wells up here in New England that have lower flow rates in them — a gallon, two gallons a minute flow rates. Minerals begin to bother in the fractures when they’re exposed to air, sediments and other things get in, any debris gets into the fractures and plugs them up over time. Then, with the hydrofracturing process we can pluck those back out and create a better water supply without having to go and drill another well or something like that. And it’s much less invasive.
Q. Are there types of wells or types of formations where this is going to be used more so than others?
A. It’s a bedrock application. We found that in the medium to harder formations it works really, really well. In slates and horizontal bedding, it works very, very well. Limestones, we’ve had great success with it. Some of your really, really soft rock, the longevity isn’t as good and certainly production values — because they don’t have great production through many of the small fractures to begin with. And then in some of your really hard rocks like a granite, you can have trouble actually opening up anything in a granite because it’s just so darn hard. Somewhere in that middle, we’ve had really great success — not that you can’t hydrofrack a granite bedrock well and end up with a nice supply, because it’s 96-98 percent of the time you’re going to have a successful hydrofrack event.
In hydrofracking, we don’t create the pressures that actually make a fracture. We don’t have those kind of pressures. We flush things out, we open them up, we utilize the existing fracture network and maybe push some of the debris or sediment or mineralizations out of the way, and open them back up so water can flow more freely under certainly a lot less pressure to the borehole.
Q. Let’s shift focus to the industry. How would you describe the current state of the groundwater industry?
A. It certainly, in most parts of the country, is getting better. In some parts of the country, it’s very robust. Of course, where the drought is out West, where they’re using much more water for irrigation. There’s some pretty robust economies around. Up here in the Northeast, we seem to be doing pretty well. We have a drier than average year this year, so all the people that I talk to here are much busier. Some areas of the country, they’re still struggling with new home starts — lack of new home starts. Whether they be regulatory issues or whatever the case may be, [those areas] are still struggling in our industry.
Q. What’s one misconception about groundwater you’d wish to set the record straight on?
A. If we don’t protect it, we’re not going to have it. We’re just not going to have potable water. We don’t do enough to protect our groundwater.
Q. What can groundwater professionals do to help the public take this more seriously?
A. Continue conservation. I’m a fan of, “If you didn’t use it, you didn’t need it.” We need to continue to conserve our groundwater resources. In some of these big contamination areas — the place down in Florida, down there with the sinkhole (where a radioactive water storage pond collapsed) — that’s going to impact how many millions of people over time? We have to be a little bit more diligent in what we do about whether they be household cleaners, whether they would be petroleum products, or whatever it might be that somebody might just blatantly dump out on the ground. Those are the things that are very, very easily avoidable. Our impact on our environment, it shows a little bit more here, as far as I’m concerned, every day. We have to be very mindful of it.
Q. I hear a lot of talk about how the age of an average person in the field keeps creeping higher. What do we need to do to attract and retain the next generation of drillers and groundwater professionals?
A. I don’t think we do a very good job of making our occupation look too sexy. It’s just one of those deals, where you’re out and you work long days, and you come back in and you’re covered with dirt and sometimes other things like hydraulic oil if a hose blows, or whatever it might be. We need to work to continue to be a more professional industry. What I mean by that is, we need to convey that we’re really proud of what we do and that we know what we’re doing and that it is something that is very, very important. Image is everything. From nice looking equipment to well-dressed employees to certifications and taking your educational classes — taking what we do very seriously and sort of upping the ante, so to speak. We are professionals and we should stand tall and look proud and be proud of our history and what we’re doing, and how we protect our groundwater. We need to continue to push that forward. How else are you going to engage a young person? They have to think that they have a career, they have a purpose and that they can make a good living at it. Those are the things that we have to give to them because right now, as far as I’m concerned, we’re being beat out by that. There are many other places for them to go where they can find a purpose very easily, they can be paid very well and they can be proud of what they do at the end of the day. We have to give that to them.
Q. What skills do younger groundwater professionals need that might not have been required when you got your start in the industry?
A. Certainly. Learning on the job takes a long time. I wasn’t the best person maybe to sit around the classroom, as I alluded to earlier in the interview. A working knowledge of geology and hydrogeology, on the contracting side, will just give you a greater sense of vision for what you’re doing and how you’re doing it and how you can do it better. Certainly on the other science and engineering side, if you want to be a geologist or a hydrogeologist, a working knowledge of what we [drillers] do every day out in the field. So, sort of a knowledge of both camps. It’s something I’ve taken on over time, to learn as much as I could from my colleagues out here, whether they be an engineer or a hydrogeologist or a geologist. I’ve picked it up over time, because I’ve wanted to learn it. I can see that it would have been advantageous to have known that going in, had a good working knowledge of [geology and hydrogeology] going in.
Q. From a drilling contractor perspective, what are the biggest challenges you face in the field?
A. We’re fighting with the cost of equipment right now. Being a business manager, and that’s one thing that I didn’t touch on is that, you know, somebody that’s thinking about running their own business ought to have some sort of business management education, too. Some idea, as they step forward, of the changes. Because it takes something different today than it took back in 1980 when I first started, to run a profitable company, whether it be safety or whatever that might be.
We’re always challenged with managing people, managing customers. Customers are more demanding today than they’ve ever been. Maybe I’m just getting older, but it just seems to be more and more challenging every year to keep everybody happy and run a good business, and deliver the products you say you’re going to deliver, and have them appreciate how hard you work to deliver that product. In the age of the Internet and in 15 seconds somebody can have an arm-wrestling competition with you over the price of a pump — some of that stuff can be really, really challenging.
Running a business today is challenging and I can see it being more challenging as the years go on as we become more technical and more advanced in our applications, whether it be pumping system applications, whether it be the drilling rigs themselves, groundwater modeling. There’s so many advancements in modeling practices based on experiments that were done over the years. It’s a challenge to keep abreast of all that, but we have to do it.
Hydrofracking: Groundwater, Not Oil and Gas
Learn about hydrofracking from hydrogeologist Stuart Smith and NGWA President Jeffrey W. Williams at Groundwater Week in Las Vegas. See their presentation 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 6, in rooms N101/N102 of the Las Vegas Convention Center.