The Groundwater Foundation’s 2021 McEllhiney Lecturer reflects on the experience, challenges, and what he learned giving his presentation during a pandemic.
By Kevin McGinnis
It was an honor to be selected as The Groundwater Foundation’s 2021 William A. McEllhiney Distinguished Lecturer and give the keynote address at the National Ground Water Association’s virtual Groundwater Week 2020.
When I consider and reflect on the past McEllhiney Lecturers, I am truly humbled to be named in a group of distinguished men such as Marvin F. Glotfelty, RG; Dave Kill, PE; Ronald Peterson; Peter Cartwright, PE; and the list just goes on and on.
Since I gave my last address at Groundwater Week 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee, I have been asked several questions about my experience. Here are some of those questions and my answers.
Question: What did you enjoy the most about this experience?
Answer: Meeting new people. The groundwater industry is made up of such great people. They are hardworking, honest, patriotic, and family oriented. It was a privilege and an honor to travel around the country meeting and spending time with them.
Q: What were some of the challenges you faced?
A: Well, COVID-19 presented a tremendous obstacle for everyone for the past two years. It necessitated changes be made to the traditional scheduling and presentations by the McEllhiney Lecturer.
Many states cancelled their in-person meetings due to health and safety concerns in addition to government mandates. As a result, most of my face-to-face presentations were changed to remote online presentations.
COVID rules reduced my traveling, but I still took 14 trips and presented 11 online presentations during 2021. I need to add that not all those trips were for the McEllhiney Lecture.
When I had the opportunity to present face-to-face, I realized each city and state had different health and safety rules and protocols. This was very interesting. Every place had signs requiring face masks and social distancing early in 2021, but as the year progressed the signs were still there, but there was not as much enforcement. Some states had extremely strict protocols, such as Colorado and New Mexico, while other states, Texas, Kansas, Florida, and South Carolina, had relaxed protocols.
Air travel was another challenge. I did not really mind wearing a mask in the airport and on the plane, but the delayed and cancelled flights made flying a bit difficult. Some travelers seemed a little grouchy, but for the most part, people were kind and patient.
Q: What did you learn in the process?
A: First of all, I am embarrassed to admit that I did not know who William A. McEllhiney was or why this lecture was named after him. I learned the William A. McEllhiney Distinguished Lecture Series in Water Well Technology was established in 2000 to foster professional excellence in water well technology. The lecture series honors William A. McEllhiney, who was the 1948 founding president of the National Ground Water Association, and himself a groundwater contractor and civil engineer.
I learned how to use remote presentation tools such as Zoom and GoToMeeting. I consider myself “technology challenged,” so learning to use these tools to make videos for the keynote address and McEllhiney Lecture was a challenge. I never realized there were so many things that go into making a video and online presentation—things such as proper lighting, sound, audio, script writing, learning copyright rules, etc.
There are two frequent questions I encounter daily. One relates to coliforms in the water effecting the water’s potability. The other question relates to bacteria-produced slime effecting water quality and production.
Q: Wait, you made a video?
A: Well, my best attempt at a video. I was asked to record my keynote presentation and McEllhiney Lecture for the virtual show. I wanted it to be entertaining enough to hold the audience’s attention while also being informative. To accomplish this, I included video footage from several sources.
It was also challenging to ensure the recordings kept people’s attention for 30 minutes and 60 minutes, the timelines for the presentations. I have a tough time sitting at a computer screen watching 15-minute presentations. Watching TV for an hour or more is not hard. Watching a computer screen of someone lecturing, however, can be torture. Additionally, knowing that most of the audience use their hands for outside work added another dimension to the challenge.
Q: What was your McEllhiney Lecture about?
A: My McEllhiney Lecture was titled “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Innovative Treatment Options for Established and Emerging Water Quality Challenges.”
The number one water quality issue facing the water well industry is microorganisms . . . or bugs in our well water. There are two frequent questions I encounter daily. One relates to coliforms in the water effecting the water’s potability. The other question relates to bacteria-produced slime effecting water quality and production. I talked about these two issues and how to diagnose and solve these problems.
Q: What was your keynote address about?
A: My keynote address was titled “Establishing Social Distancing Between Contamination and Drinking Water Systems.”
I talked about PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) and how this new chemical invention improved our daily lives, and allowed us to make better cookware, better waterproofing material, and better fire-fighting foam to name a few. Unfortunately, it was such a sturdy chemical, it would not break down in the environment, and now, 70-plus years later, these same PFAS have affected important groundwater areas.
Many scientific breakthroughs have made our lives better. It is frustrating to learn that those same discoveries had negative long-term effects to humans or the environment. One example is when lead was added to gasoline to make our engines run smoother. It was a simple fix without any harm we could see. Then we discovered that the additive was now airborne and made people sick.
Another example that is more current and acute is our current viral issue. Scientists initially thought that shutting down our country for 14 days would stop the spread of the disease, but we are continuing to learn that many solutions are not working. It is incumbent for legislators and scientists to both keep an open mind and admit we do not have all the answers, but also not give up.
Q: Do you have any closing thoughts?
A: I would like to use this last example to address our industry. Science is a process of discovery, not a final destination. It has been said that “we don’t know what we don’t know.” Certainly, the current and ongoing COVID-19 issue illustrates this.
Being part of this amazing industry for 29 years allows me a certain perspective. Ideas come and go. The ones that work and are safe will become the new normal. The ones that are less helpful or become safety risks eventually weed themselves out over time.
Instead of spending so much time and energy arguing over which solution works and which does not, it befits us to admit with humility that we do not know what we do not know. With that attitude we may be more helpful and supportive than defensive and reclusive.
Asking questions should not be threatening. If some of our science is challenged, we all win. Re-examining our science will either help us become more confident in our solution or cause us to rethink the entire solution—both of which are good for our industry.
Once again, I say thank you for the honor to be selected as the 2021 McEllhiney Lecturer. It was such a privilege to travel around the country and meet people both in-person and virtually. It is humbling to be part of such a great group of groundwater people.
Kevin McGinnis is the president of Cotey Chemical Corp. in Lubbock, Texas, and served as The Groundwater Foundation’s 2021 McEllhiney Lecturer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.