75 Years of Water Well Journal

Looking back with those who wrote and read the groundwater industry’s oldest journal.

By Thad Plumley

If you’re a groundwater professional—or simply live in a house with one—you’re familiar with Water Well Journal being dropped in a mailbox every month.

WWJ has regularly arrived at homes and offices of water well contractors for 75 years. It has been a voice for contractors, published educational articles, and provided timely information so groundwater professionals can better do their job for as long as any driller and pump installer working today can remember.

“I doubt that there is a water well driller in America whose work in the industry has not benefitted from regularly reading WWJ,” says Jay Lehr, the National Water Well Association executive director from 1968-1991 and a long-time WWJ editor-in-chief and author.

WWJ debuted when the Illinois Well Drillers Association revamped its journal to appeal to a national audience. The Illinois Well Driller became the Water Well Journal in 1947 and was delivered to 2000 readers.

Now the journal is delivered to 20,000 groundwater professionals around the globe. Readers of this issue come from all 50 states and 54 countries.

But how do you summarize those 75 years?

The journal has always firmly supported groundwater contractors. Early issues discussed casing shortages, while recently WWJ addressed the workforce shortage with a three-part series.

WWJ has also always introduced the newest products and trends in the industry. It was covering submersible pumps in the 1950s, detailing how 2-inch wells were old news in the 1960s, introducing geothermal systems in the 1980s, and showcasing the quest for “city-like water” on variable demand in the 1990s and 2000s.

The publication has also promoted the importance of professionalism from the start—a cartoon in one of the first issues showed the difference between a well digger and well driller. Likewise, it has always drove home the importance of continuing education, certification, safety, and smart business practices.

But there’s still so much more. The wonderful covers, the legions of expert columnists, the award-winning articles, the heartwarming profiles of the individuals and families that make up the industry, the creative advertisements. How do you summarize 75 years of that?

You don’t. You let the people who were a part of it—the writers, the editors, and perhaps most importantly, the readers—tell the story.

Playing a role in history

I became executive director of the National Water Well Association in 1968 but had been reading Water Well Journal long before that as a professor of groundwater hydrology at The Ohio State University and University of Arizona.

Soon after beginning my position at OSU, I learned Bob Storm, the founder and editor of WWJ, was interested in retiring. I talked the NWWA (now NGWA) Board of Directors into buying the magazine and sought a new editor.

I had a rocky start in my first efforts until one day a young man named Chas Stanley came to interview for a job at NWWA. It turned out he was not interested in the editor position, but he talked us into hiring his wife, Anita, a recent college graduate with a degree in English. She had been waiting for him outside our office. He called her in, and the rest is history! WWJ thrived under Anita Stanley for three decades.

I eventually became the monthly editorial writer. NGWA’s Kathy Butcher recently gifted me with a volume of all my editorials during the last 20 years of my tenure as NWWA executive director.

Many people may not be aware, but during Anita’s tenure, the NWWA began two other publications that she directed, Ground Water Heat Pump Journal and Ground Water Monitoring Review. Both were successful for a number of years when those technologies were new and needed to educate new audiences.

WWJ played a major role in convincing the water well industry to adopt a number of advanced technologies drawn from the oil industry in the 1970s and 1980s. Michael Campbell, NWWA’s first research director, and I decided to help upgrade the water well industry by compiling a book in 1973 titled Water Well Technology in which we attempted to describe oil drilling aspects that could be adapted into the water well industry. It was quickly translated by McGraw-Hill into Spanish and is still in use more than 50 years later.

In my opinion, few trade publications have ever been of more value to its industry than Water Well Journal. I am certainly proud to have played a role in its history.
–Jay Lehr, NGWA executive director, 1968-1991, WWJ editor-in-chief, 1970- 1991

Beating the odds

It’s rare to remain vital and up to date for 75 years. But Water Well Journal has beaten the odds and done exactly that. What’s more, the monthly trade journal for water well contractors shows no signs of slowing down as it moves past this milestone anniversary.

Since its inception in 1947, WWJ has provided information on all aspects of running a water well business to its 20,000 monthly readers. Readers know they can count on their trade journal to explain what might be coming in the future, suggest emerging lines of business, review new products, and offer a glimpse of the lives of other successful contractors.

Few industries include contractors who are as close to their customers as are those who provide safe, fresh drinking water to those who need it. Water well contractors are professionals who provide a service to those who need a well drilled, a pump repaired, or drinking water treated. They make a difference in the daily lives of all their customers.

I’m proud to have been involved with Water Well Journal for 30 of her 75 years. The publication’s past, present, and future are something that all of us who have served on its staff can point to with pride.
–Anita B. Stanley, WWJ editor, 1972-1999, WWJ publisher, 1991-2002

Educating the industry

When I think of Water Well Journal over the past 75 years, it takes me back nearly to the founding of the National Water Well Association.

My grandfather, Edwin H. Renner, was an NWWA director in 1951 and his son (and my father), Tom, was a director in 1955. The next year, the NWWA Women’s Division was established by Doris Falwell, wife of outgoing president Calvin Falwell. My mother was very much involved during the years my dad was an officer.

Tom went up the officer ladder and was president in 1958. My mother, “Kitty,” was the women’s division chair and wrote articles each month in Water Well Journal called “Over the Coffee Cups.” They brought the industry together as they discussed the industry as a family of workers—including the spouses.

I was 9 years old in 1958, and my folks went to the NWWA convention in Washington, D.C. We kids were left with our grandparents, Edwin and Gertrude, who lived next door. My grandfather told us over supper that our dad was in Washington, D.C., to become president. Was I ever impressed! I wondered when we were moving into the White House.

WWJ has been in our office for decades. The past 75 years have seen increasing technological changes to an old business that has been handed down for generations. We learned the business of drilling and pump service from past generations. Some of that knowledge was provided in print via WWJ.

I have had the opportunity to share some of my experience with a few articles I authored. I’ve covered gravel pack screen design, plumbness and alignment, liquid petroleum gas, and more.

The articles in WWJ are another tool to educate ourselves on the constant changes we face every day. Now, the capacitors and relays have been replaced by VFD controllers, soft starters, pressure transducers, and dv/dt and SINE filters. Since this technology is so new, we are not learning it from a previous generation. We now need to educate ourselves with classroom training, webinars, and of course, the information provided to us in WWJ.
–Roger E. Renner, MGWC, NGWAF, president, E.H. Renner & Sons Inc.

Thank you’s, hugs, and appreciation

My 18 years at the Water Well Journal fell within the last two decades of the 20th century. It was a time that saw new opportunities igniting an industry in need of innovative products and methods. And WWJ undertook to fill its pages with the latest information available to provide readers with the knowledge to make smart business choices.

We talked directly to the people who had the expertise. We wanted to furnish our readers with the best possible technical data filtered through the lens of those who best knew the subject, whether it be a contractor handling methane gas recovery in landfills, a groundwater heat pump installer, or a lone cable tool driller. We wanted the experts to shine. They, after all, were the ones with the experience.

This method proved to be a winning formula. As the years passed, my respect for the men and women of the groundwater industry grew exponentially with each article. I so appreciated the time they took to talk me through procedures related to every aspect of their businesses and a simple thank you at the end of our conversation didn’t seem adequate. Occasionally there would be an opportunity at a regional or national trade show to reconnect and that was always a pleasant experience.

I interviewed a contractor based on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula sometime in the late 1980s. During the course of our conversation, I learned his two daughters were actively involved in the business, out on the drill sites on a daily basis, tackling all facets of well drilling and pump installation.

Although women have long been involved in the day-to-day running of a contracting business, female well drillers and pump installers were not that common at the time. So, I interviewed the two daughters, as well as their dad, hired a photographer, and wrote the article. They thanked me and that was that (or so I thought).

A few years went by and I attended the NGWA annual convention in Las Vegas. I was working in the WWJ booth when two young women descended upon me. They were still jubilant over the publicity that the article generated, and I was showered with thank you’s, hugs, and appreciation.

That encounter still brings a smile to my face and I wonder if they are still drilling wells and installing pumps. If so, I wish them well!
–Gloria J. Swanson, WWJ senior editor, 1981-1999

Growing coverage and making friends

Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the volunteer leadership expected more western U.S. coverage from Water Well Journal. I took on the assignment of doing a series of stories on persons and firms up and down California and into Arizona and Nevada.

One of my all-time favorite articles was my interview with George Moss of Roscoe Moss Company. George met me at their Los Angeles factory and offices on a Sunday morning direct from a tennis match, him still in his tennis clothes. He said he couldn’t understand why anyone would want to hear about the company or about him, but he and his brother’s contributions to well technology ultimately led to George accepting NGWA’s Oliver Award on behalf of himself, his brother, and the firm’s employees.

George was one of the earliest trustees of the American Ground Water Trust as well when it was part of NGWA. I recall in 1992 George picking me up at LAX, taking us to a donor meeting, then dinner after a stop at his home, and then me back to LAX—all in the same day! I learned then he was a long-time friend and neighbor to the crime story author Joseph Wambaugh, a favorite of mine. About three weeks later an autographed copy of one of Wambaugh’s books showed up in my mailbox, courtesy of George. It started my hobby of collecting author-signed books. When I was NGWA’s CEO, George always made an effort to look me up during Groundwater Week to continue to encourage the Association’s work.

I remain proud of the many articles I researched and wrote that attempted to quantify the water well industry’s scope, something that really hadn’t been done much in WWJ.

Water Well Journal continues to age like a fine wine, getting better each year, it seems. The industry is fortunate to have such a strong trade magazine with such a laser-like focus.
–Kevin McCray, CAE, NGWA CEO, 1995-2017 and WWJ assistant editor, 1979-1983

Coming up with puzzling ways to inform

Just as today, WWJ has always looked for new ideas and offerings to keep the publication engaging as well as informative. One of those discussions years ago included mention of a crossword puzzle. I don’t remember if I was drafted or volunteered to try my hand at crafting a crossword puzzle, but the first effort appeared in the November 1973 issue (WWJ’s 25th anniversary year), followed by a Christmas-themed one.

In two short months, this endeavor somehow (remember the new ideas) morphed into a regular WWJ entry called The Lighter Side, which included the Puzzle Well, The Sands of Time, and a Did You Know component. While the historical account and the interesting facts sections went away in October 1975, the Puzzle Well remained until December 1996.

I tried to combine the monthly focus of the publication with any holiday when determining how to attack the puzzle of the month. I made up 12×12, 13×13, 14×14, 15×15, and 16×16-square grids on graph paper. For the first few puzzles, I was just elated if legitimate words or abbreviations fit. In later months, the puzzle designs reflected a full pattern and had a more professional appearance. It usually took about 10 hours to construct each puzzle and state the clues.

The reference desk supervisor at the Columbus (Ohio) Public Library, Barbara Deitch, and I were on a first-name basis. The AOL dial-up modem to the Internet wasn’t much help in the early 1990s, but a gadget company produced a credit card sized device for crossword puzzle lovers. You would indicate the number of letters in a word, position the known letters, and then voilà—the possibilities would appear. What a time saver!
–Kathy Butcher, CMP, current NGWA Director of Education and WWJ Puzzle Well author, 1973-1996

Interacting in various ways

Water Well Journal is 75 and I’m a fair majority of that as I’ve interacted with WWJ in various ways.

First, it was as a staff member of the then National Water Well Association from 1979-1983. I was semi-new to the industry then—semi meaning in high school and college I pulled and set pumps with my dad (the much-maligned plumber and electrician who was actually good with well pumps).

I saw cable tool well drilling, but a lot of the practice was new to me. I had escaped from secondary school teaching to join the staff. This was the Jay and Pat Lehr days. Kathy Butcher, doing more now 40 years later, was my supervisor and mentor.

I interacted with WWJ first as a reader to get caught up and learn something, and then as a writer in 1980 and sporadically since. I was the sole member of the NWWA staff with a biology degree, so I was the “bacteria expert” as tenuous as that was early on. Later, I had the academic foundation and experience to actually speak and write with some authority.

Several of us also indexed the journal for the NGWA Groundwater Database, an early version of a literature search. This gave me the opportunity to read far back into the publication history. There were really excellent articles on well design, well hydraulics, drilling, and pumps. There were also some crassly commercial pieces in the 1950s, some about alarmingly bad practices (Calgon for well cleaning; don’t get me started! “Calgon! Feed my bacteria!”).

Overall, both then and now, WWJ is highly useful reading for any of our sectors involved with water wells. It’s good to see this journal, one that helped get me started, still performing today.
–Stuart Smith, CGWP, hydrogeologist, Smith-Comeskey Ground Water Science LLC and Ground+Water Tanzania Ltd., NGWA staff member, 1979-1983

A time of exciting change

I was hired as a fresh-faced 20- something in 1996 as a manuscript coordinator. By 1999, I was promoted to editor of WWJ and NGWA’s director of publications and stayed in those roles until 2004.

It was a period of extreme but exciting change for the journal. At the time, advertising revenue was stagnant, and the magazine needed a major refresh. In 2001, we started with a content redesign, adding in some regular columns from industry leaders. Such popular columns as The Well Guy by John Williamson and All in the Family by Lana Straub were born. They were soon joined by other industry experts, including the long-running and popular series Transfer of Technology by John L’Espoir and Engineering Your Business by Ed Butts, PE, CPI.

At this time, I also designed the Clip & Copy series of consumer-oriented articles, which won a Blue Ribbon Idea Award in 2001 from the Society of National Association Publications.

Also in 2001, we decided to add quarterly oversized tabloid issues of WWJ and were successful in bringing back many lost advertisers. Looking back, I realize what an enormous amount of faith that NGWA leadership, especially Kevin McCray, CAE, and Anita Stanley, placed in me, allowing me to take risks and make drastic changes to a beloved industry staple and the flagship journal of the Association.

It was an exciting period. During my tenure, NGWA’s three publications and staff were honored with 11 national awards for design, writing, and general excellence. I also hired Thad Plumley in 2000, one of the best decisions I ever made for NGWA!
–Jill Ross, WWJ editor, 1996-2004

Gaining a life-long interest in the industry

I have read Water Well Journal for as far back as I can remember. I would come home from grade school and sit down in our family’s kitchen and look at the stack of mail that came that day. If it was the first of the month and Water Well Journal was in the stack, I would always flip through the pages looking at pictures and reading the advertisements.

Once my father was done reading that month’s issue, he would store it in WWJ binders he kept on a bookshelf in our den. I actually won a stack of old WWJs in a raffle several years ago at a show in Wisconsin. It was fun going back and flipping through those journals and looking at how things have changed but also stayed the same in our great industry.

One of the things I saw looking through the old issues was the advertisements from Coyote Manufacturing. They always ran pictures children had drawn of a coyote in their ads and would send prizes to the lucky kid who drew the best coyote that month. I always wanted to send in a drawing but never got it done.

Congratulations to the WWJ and its staff for 75 years! Keep up the great work. And to the kid looking at the WWJ at the kitchen table today, I hope it gets you interested in the groundwater industry just like it did for me.

–Chip Nelson Jr., director of sales, GEFCO/BAUER Equipment America

Continuing WWJ’s publishing excellence

Beginning my career with NGWA and WWJ in February 2008, I fondly remember the first profile I wrote and the advice I received from Wayne Beatty, the 28-year copy editor veteran.

Wayne shared that readers tend to crack open WWJ while on lunch break in the cab of their work truck, so it’s best to write in a conversational tone. The more conversational the tone, the easier it is on the reader. That nugget of insight stuck with me.

I wrote “Labor of Love,” my first profile for the April 2008 issue of WWJ, on Carol Lawrence and Jim Dwyer of JD’s Pump & Drilling Co. in Wevertown, New York. Seeing my first byline in the then-broadsheet (big size) format was satisfying. That same feeling continues today.

Looking back, I was intimidated stepping into my predecessor’s shoes. She won numerous association publishing awards for her work in WWJ, as had Thad Plumley, my editor. I was eager to continue WWJ’s longstanding tradition of association publishing excellence and have been fortunate to do so. I’m proud to say WWJ has been an APEX award winner 18 consecutive years with 32 total awards, the most in the groundwater industry.

Now don’t mistake this for company speak, but I’m truly honored to work for a trade publication of WWJ’s caliber. I look back at the past issues of yesteryear and always come away impressed—from the level of knowledge passed on to readers to the original artwork on the covers to the forward-thinking nature of the publication.

Today, I’m grateful to work alongside a small team of talented individuals who are just as committed as past editorial teams in publishing the best work possible. I look forward to continuing to cover the water well industry for you—the reader—for years to come.
–Mike Price, WWJ senior editor, 2008-present

Throwing myself into the job

I arrived at Water Well Journal in the Spring 2000 as a guy who had worked in the newspaper world—a sportswriter to be exact.

It’s safe to say I had a lot to learn. Pulling pumps? Forget it; I had only dealt with athletes pulling hamstrings.

I threw myself into the job. I read past articles by the dozens as well as every word of every article in the new issues our WWJ team cranked out each month.

I was honest. I began every interview in those early days by saying, “So I’m new to Water Well Journal and I grew up on city water. If you don’t mind, feel free to talk to me like I’m in elementary school. I won’t be offended, and it will actually help me learn what you do on a daily basis.”

No one was ever put off. In fact, it was quite the opposite. As you know, groundwater professionals love their job, but perhaps the only thing they love more is talking about their job. I soaked up every conversation.

And then I watched. The day after my first convention in Las Vegas, Nevada, I rented a car and drove to Reno where a manufacturer hosted a drilling demo.

I got to see what I had read and heard about those previous months. That’s when and where it all clicked for me. I was comfortable after that, and more than excited when I was faced with a new challenge—becoming the editor of WWJ and the NGWA Director of Publications in October 2004.

Again, I was honest. Back in Las Vegas a few months later for Groundwater Week, I asked some NGWA past presidents for advice. One said, “Thad, we know how to drill, and we know how to install pumps, but we’re lousy businessmen.”

Some of my first decisions were to widen the scope of our columns. Columns on sales skills and human resources were added immediately. More on sound business practices, insurance matters, and smart safety have been added through the years as that conversation has never left me.

We’ve continued to widen the scope of what we cover as homeowners have grown more knowledgeable about their water well systems. We’ve also changed the look of the journal on a few occasions too.

Through it all, I can comfortably say I think WWJ accomplishes my goal for it every issue: To make groundwater professionals better at what they do so their businesses are profitable.

I hope you agree.
–Thad Plumley, WWJ editor, 2004-present, WWJ senior editor, 2000-2004

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Everyone connected with WWJ is proud and humbled to have been there for you for 75 years. We also know we certainly could not have done it without your continued, loyal support for decades. At the end of the day, you’re what makes this milestone so special.

“The family-owned businesses that comprise a majority of water well contractors are the key to this industry’s success,” Stanley says. “A successful family water well business has often thrived for generations, and family members share great pride in the work they do to provide other families with clean, safe drinking water.”

So, again, thank you for 75 wonderful years. And now on to the next 75!


Thad Plumley is the editor of WWJ and director of information products at the National Ground Water Association. He can be reached at tplumley@ngwa.org, or (800) 551-7379, ext. 1594.