By Carlos David Mogollón, WC&P Executive Editor
The following are the comments of Kevin McCray, executive director of the National Ground Water Association, from an interview that took place in mid-November done as a preview to the 2003 Ground Water Expo.
WC&P: I wanted to touch bases with you on what your expectations are coming into this event facing the groundwater industry this year?
McCray: As it relates to the show?
WC&P: Yes, what things do you see likely popping up on the radar screen? And I assume you look ahead and tailor some of the seminars, etc., for providing background and updates on some of those issues. So, if you could discuss those, it would be nice.
McCray: Well, what we have been doing for the last several years has been trying to prepare people in our industry to be better professionals. We see that there is a continuing growth among the states, the regulatory agencies, to move to licensing and continuing education as part, again, of their efforts to approve professionalism—with the ultimate aim of providing the consumer with the best possible product for their water well system. So, our education is oriented toward making them better professionals, not only in terms of their practice of water well technology—be it well construction or pump installation or the ancillary services related to that, such as water conditioning and treatment—but also better businessmen. If you’re running a sound business, your ability to practice at the highest levels of your profession will be made better too. And so, that has been and will continue to be what we focus on in terms of our education delivery to those people who participate and come to the Ground Water Expo.
WC&P: I noticed that those are all topics that are covered as well in the Interest Group Section meetings, workshops, and live demonstration sessions, etc.
McCray: Right. What we’ve done with the interest groups is we’ve invited them to become more visible and more engaged in their topic with those people that are at the expo. In the past, when they’ve had meetings, they’ve kind of done it intramurally—and we’re asking them to do it intermurally, now, so to speak. And I think they’ve stepped up very well to the challenge. I believe eight of our nine interest groups have some programming that will be available for folks to participate in here and work from and become better at.
WC&P: What are the key topics there?
McCray: Ones that have been very active historically have been those related to horizontal drilling. Now, that overall market has slowed down, but there’s still significant interest in that technology and its application. We have a fairly aggressive group of folks that have an interest in the geothermal area. They’re not that large, but they’re very active and we, of course, have very good partnerships with the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association (www.igshpa.okstate.edu) and the Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium (www.geoexchange.org). So, we’re hoping to leverage that. What we’re trying to do is help them promote that technology because it’s an excellent diversification opportunity for the water well industry since they have on hand a lot of the own contractors’ drilling machines that can be made to work for the geothermal market…
WC&P: I also noticed that NGWA is doing WQA certifications at the Expo this year. When did you start doing that?
McCray: Well, this is the first time. We started a partnership with WQA last year. And WQA staff were able to bring to the show a handful of their manufacturer companies as exhibitors that shared a footprint here within our trade show. And they’re doing that again this year. We’re just extending that partnership for WQA (www.wqa.org) to offer their certification exams because we see it as a natural extension. Our folks, for the most part, have been very good about drilling a well and installing the pump. Now, we’re telling them to be partners with the water conditioning and water treatment industry.
WC&P: That sort of dovetails into the whole theme of diversifying.
McCray: Right. It is diversification, but basically to the end-user to be able to provide a total turnkey solution to them when they need it or when they have a water need. To recognize that you’re not in the well business, you’re not in the pump business—you’re in the supply of plentiful, safe drinking water to people. And certainly, the water conditioning and water treatment industry is an important part of that equation. It’s a good partnership organizationally. And I think it’s something that people in the groundwater industry can benefit from and, certainly, people in the water quality industry can benefit from.
WC&P: Now, we haven’t spoken in a couple years now, but how has the well driller industry been affected by the economy over the last couple of years?
McCray: Well, it appears that, certainly, if you look back to last year, 2002, while the economy may not have been the best overall, on a national basis, for our industry it was an extraordinary year because we had a very strong housing market and also a lot of drought in parts of the country. And when there is drought, old wells that need to be upgraded or replaced show themselves. So, that creates a great opportunity for our industry to come in and do a better job for those customers than what they’ve had to utilize up to that point.
WC&P: I believe our publisher ran into that situation as well.
McCray: Then, of course, too, when people see landscaped irrigation, design or turf starting to dry up and they see their investment dollars going down and know that there may be restrictions on using municipal water, whatever—then sometimes that stimulates a market for some irrigation-well work as well. In that sense, we had a very good market that we benefited from, unfortunately through drought; but it is a consequence of having the right solution at the right time. And that’s what groundwater professionals can do.
WC&P: There’s also been it would seem a big drive in recent years generally toward watershed management. I know a local well driller wrote an article for us a few years back about the need for other well drillers to get involved in that process to make sure they’re interests were included in the thought process of how those plans were developed.
McCray: That’s sound advice and advice that we would continue to give. Clearly, there is a growing recognition, scientifically, and consequently from a regulatory and legislative perspective, that groundwater and surface water is almost always interlinked. You can’t manage one without being aware of the other. And for that condition to go on and not have a voice from the groundwater community would be irresponsible. So, organizationally, at a national level, we’re certainly engaged in those discussions. And we certainly encourage and provide support to our membership via their state association or individually or through our information products on understanding what those issues are. It’s a tough, complex subject. And we have seen where there have been implementations that are way to simplistic.
WC&P: What’s been the general impact on the drillers as a result?
McCray: What happens is there’s too much of a black-and-white perspective without a real understanding of what the hydrogeologic conditions are. What we would encourage is to really grasp those hydrogeologic conditions and then to make rules—if rule making is even necessary—that are cognizant of those realities of what groundwater availability is and how it occurs.
WC&P: I would imagine that well drillers would be uniquely positioned to offer practical advice on how a development might affect the groundwater in a given area as well.
McCray: That’s right. They’re going to know what the availability is, they’re going to know what kind of capacity wells can produce and, therefore, the level of construction or housing or population density an area can deal with as well. And then you also have to take into consideration the sewage or wastewater side of the equation too. And that’s where we think a lot of these forces are coming together. We cannot continue to look out as only the water well industry. We have to be aware of the ancillary industries such as water quality and conditioning, and the onsite wastewater industry as well.
WC&P: How do you work with the onsite wastewater industry?
McCray: Well, we’re having a growing relationship with that industry. At the Expo this year, the National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association (www.nowra.org) will have a booth. We just participated at their show in Tennessee this month (Nov. 3-6). And also the National Precast Concrete Association (www.precast.org), which makes equipment used in onsite wastewater recycling, they’re also going to be at our show this year. So, it’s really bringing together the multiple arms that are involved in providing and protecting groundwater so that private well systems can remain the excellent delivery option that they are already.
WC&P: With the number of issues that have popped up in recent years related to brine discharge to septic systems, it sounds like that might be a good opportunity to bring the WQA in and have an in-depth conversation about how each industry segment can work together better.
McCray: Well, our experience is that the folks at WQA have always been open-minded and cognizant of that role and want to be good stewards. I’m sure those two organizations, those two industries, will find a way to talk to each other. And, if NGWA can have some positive part in facilitating that discussion, then we’d be proud of having done that.
WC&P: There are a couple other water quality issues that I think might merit some mention. That is we’ve seen a lot of attention paid in recent years to perchlorate, MTBE and more recently NDMA, as well as in the past to TCE/PCE. How do you as an association deal with those issues and how your members might be confronted by them?
McCray: Well, what we have done is facilitated the scientific understanding of those contaminants in the groundwater environment—how they move, how they occur, how they can be remediated… And we try to share that information so that those contaminants don’t cause any further harm or risk. And, hopefully, we help lend knowledge to effectively remediating them should they be present in the environment. Beyond that, in terms of telling people the specifics of how to do it or what to do, that is a part of what we do; but our role is more on a grand scale as opposed to a point-of-use/point-of-entry kind of thing. There again, one of the advantages of having a good relationship with the WQA facilitates an exchange between the science and the application of the science.
WC&P: I have two other questions. The first is a couple of years ago you had a legislative effort (on a federal level) that you pushed which you were looking to get WQA to sign off on to support it. What happened to that? What’s its status?
McCray: I think you’re referring to the financing program.
WC&P: Correct, revolving loan or loan funds.
McCray: Where it sits right now is in conference committee between the House and the Senate. And, obviously, the program has been authorized. The House has called for an appropriation. The Senate has called for an appropriation.
WC&P: And, again, the basis of this is…? In other words, please give me a synopsis of the purpose of the legislation.
McCray: The program is to provide a pool of funds to offer low- to middle-income people across the United States an opportunity to utilize federal dollars through a loan program to either replace, upgrade or employ for the first time individual wells for their drinking water systems. The idea is that you have to meet certain income level tests. It will be very low interest loans with variable terms, depending upon an individual’s ability to pay. We’re in the process of framing out some of the rules that would be necessary to run this program, but we’re also still waiting for an actual appropriation amount to be made.
WC&P: I assume the economy may have delayed that?
McCray: I don’t know. It may be. It may be just that Congress moves at its own pace and not how the rest of the world may wish it to move.
WC&P: I’ve heard that before.
McCray: The good news is that both the House and the Senate saw value in this kind of program. They understood the merits of it. They’ve supported it.
WC&P: We should also probably point out that this came about because of what was seen as a little bit of unfairness in how long-pipe systems—and even small municipal systems—were promoted with tax dollars, effectively as a government-sponsored entity against private business enterprises. This was designed to make it more even-handed by creating more of a level playing field.
McCray: Well, it does to an extent. I don’t think that would be the sole motivation or the sole reason for the program. I think it’s just a recognition that there are people that have a need…
WC&P: And a preference or desire for…
McCray: Right. …and there’s an effective method that should be available as a choice to them.
WC&P: OK. The last question I had was whether you could tell me a little bit about this year’s convention. What are you expecting as far as number of exhibitors and attendees?
McCray: We have 265 exhibiting companies, which is the highest number we’ve had outside of one of our Las Vegas events. It will be the most square footage, certainly, outside of the Las Vegas experience. We have 76 hours of continuing education. We’ve talked about it, but we do have these Live Action Demonstrations, which we haven’t done in a long, long time. We have an international presence that we haven’t had in quite some time. We’re having delegations from our sister associations in Taiwan, Finland and Canada, in particular. And through our partnership with the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration, they’re bringing some folks through their efforts from some other nations. And one of our speakers will be the Minister of Water Resources for the nation of Tanzania in eastern Africa to provide kind of an international perspective and a recognition of how groundwater is to his nation’s future. We think we have one of the best programs—if not the best—that we’ve ever put together.
WC&P: Is this your first time in Florida, because I thought you’ve normally alternated between Nashville and Las Vegas?
McCray: No. We haven’t been to Orlando since 1951 or ’53. Something like that. Obviously, a long, long time. We don’t have a so-called eastern anchor, so to speak. Las Vegas is where we go to in the West, but in the East we’ve rotated between several cities. For example, in 2005, we’ll be in Cobb County, Georgia, which is the northern tier of the Atlanta region.
WC&P: Where the growth is up there.
McCray: Right. And we’ve been to Nashville a couple off-years in a row. But, in other years, we’ve been to Washington, D.C., Indianapolis and other cities. It’s not that we only go to Nashville and Las Vegas. We went to Nashville twice and we may go there again, but it’s not on our horizon. The earliest possible date would be in ’07. We haven’t picked a venue for ’07.
WC&P: How has the attendance been affected in recent years?
McCray: After 54 years of doing trade shows, we had our largest year ever last year. And pre-registration right now indicates that we’ll have another strong showing this year.
WC&P: What was last year’s attendance?
McCray: Last year was in Las Vegas and it was 5,561. I’m not in the business of making forecasts so I don’t know if we’ll match that or exceed it or fall short.
WC&P: But it would be nice to come close, right?
McCray: It certainly would be nice. Pre-registration is indicating strongly. Our experience—and that of most associations, I understand—is people are waiting ’til late to register for events this year. And the industry in the eastern part of the United States didn’t really get busy until the last half of the year. So, we imagine there are a lot of people who are really just still working literally and putting a lot of cash in the bank. They’re going to be looking toward Orlando in early December as a bit of a way to give themselves a break that they’ve well earned.
WC&P: I have one last thought. Up until now, I’ve never heard of the Association of Ground Water Scientists and Engineers, which is listed in your program. How do they relate to the NGWA?
McCray: They’re just a division of the association. It’s just a label that division uses.
WC&P: OK. They’re the group that coordinates the technical sessions, etc., though?
McCray: That’s correct.
WC&P: I think that about covers it.