Incoming NGWA President Brian Snelten, PG, will lean on broad industry experience in 2022.
By Mike Price
Taking the helm amid a global pandemic, incoming National Ground Water Association President Brian Snelten, PG, knows firsthand what many in the groundwater industry are facing these days.
As area manager for Layne Christensen, A Granite Company, in Aurora, Illinois, Snelten speaks often with both area and project managers within his company throughout the United States. From coast to coast, Snelten is uniquely connected to the industry.
The fourth-generation water well contractor who grew up working at his family’s drilling and pump business in Lake Barrington, Illinois, is eyeing 2022 with a desire for the industry to return to normal business operations.
“We’ve seen supply chain issues and we’ll be looking at how the Association can help,” says the 43-year-old who will be sworn in as the 2022 NGWA president at Groundwater Week 2021, December 14-16 in Nashville, Tennessee.
“Part of my goal is to get things back to normal, if you will, and see how we can go from there.”
Outgoing NGWA President Merritt Partridge of Partridge Well Drilling Co. Inc. in Jacksonville, Florida, is only the second individual in the Association’s 73 years to serve two years instead of one. This, of course, was due to the pandemic.
Partridge, who was the youngest president (33 years old) upon being sworn in in 2019, has enjoyed seeing Snelten’s strategic thinking, passion, and dedication to the industry while they became friends.
“As an area manager at a large international drilling firm, Brian brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the table,” Partridge says. “Brian’s background is unique as he has worked at both large and small drilling firms, and he also has worked as a geologist in the environmental science side of our industry.
“I’m excited to see Brian in action as president of NGWA. I know that our Association will be in good hands under his leadership.”
Conversely, Snelten has learned leadership traits from Partridge that he hopes to emulate during his term. The two also share the same mentality when it comes to goals and efficiencies for the Association.
“Watching Merritt’s leadership has been inspiring,” Snelten shares. “The way he’s had to handle things that are not traditional in terms of the Association, kind of flying the plane as you build it sort of thing. He has a calm demeanor about himself when he speaks and speaks very thoughtfully. I’ve taken cues from that and others instead of flying off the handle or spouting off.”
Snelten is the fifth contractor from Illinois to lead the Association, following in the footsteps of John Pitz, NGWAF (2012), Larry Lyons (2004), and Larry’s father, Glen (1995). The first from Illinois, William McEllhiney Sr., was the first NGWA president in 1948-1950. McEllhiney’s legacy endures with The Groundwater Foundation’s William A. McEllhiney Distinguished Lecture Series in Water Well Technology, which was established in 2000.
Serving two terms with Snelten on the NGWA Board of Directors, David Traut, MGWC, CVCLD, has known the incoming president for about 10 years. In that time, Traut quickly realized how important family is to Snelten who is involved in his two children’s sports activities and donates time to their teams.
“When you work with someone at this level, you get to know and understand their passion and convictions and what is important in their life,” says Traut, vice president of Mark J. Traut Wells Inc. in Waite Park, Minnesota.
“Brian understands the everyday challenges faced by the smaller contractors in the industry. I feel that because he has been there and done it in a smaller family-owned business that this will be an asset as he will be able to relate to the needs of the smaller NGWA well contractor member.”
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After earning his state drilling license in October 2003, Snelten rolled up his sleeves and went to work serving on the Illinois Association of Groundwater Professionals Board of Directors in February 2004.
His intent was to better protect the state’s groundwater by changing how monitoring wells were constructed. With no
state regulations, a test boring could be drilled and backfilled with drill cuttings rather than using grout like with the construction of a water well.
“To this day in Illinois we’re still trying to find a way to affect those changes, and it’s difficult,” he says. “It takes time, and it takes people who have that passion to want to take that to a state level and try to affect that change.”
Snelten spent 13 years working in the environmental consulting industry, conducting Phase I and Phase II environmental site assessments and groundwater contamination characterization utilizing different drilling technologies (hollow stem, direct push, and rotosonic). He particularly enjoyed learning the various drilling technologies, harkening back to his youth working at his family’s business.
“I gained some experience in different types of drilling, groundwater characterization, understanding aquifers a little bit better, understanding what it is we need to do when we’re looking for water, and trying to keep water sustainable,” he says.
Snelten, who graduated from Southern Illinois University in 2000 with a degree in geology with a specialization in environmental geology, grew in his appreciation for the importance of scientists and engineers while working in the environmental consulting market. If not for them, looking for aquifers, determining aquifer transmissivity, and overseeing sustainable groundwater pumping could not be achieved.
“Brian has the right mindset to represent NGWA as a whole and is a natural when it comes to being able to see an issue from the viewpoint of any of our sections—whether they be from the contractors, manufacturers and suppliers, or scientists and engineers.”
“We really do need each other and need to be in close contact,” he surmises. “It’s not us versus them. It’s all of us working together, and when we can do that, we can achieve so much more. I’ve seen that in my time on the board of how we’re coalesced around a common goal, and we work really well with each other now.”
Jason House, LG, PG, past chair of the NGWA Scientists and Engineers Section Board of Directors, says that whatever comes before the board, Snelten quickly sees the heart of the matter.
“As board members, we know that Brian always has the best interests of NGWA in mind when making decisions,” says House, senior hydrogeologist/senior technical manager at Woodard & Curran Inc. in Portland, Maine.
“Brian also has the right mindset to represent NGWA as a whole and is a natural when it comes to being able to see an issue from the viewpoint of any of our sections—whether they be from the contractors, manufacturers and suppliers, or scientists and engineers. Brian truly epitomizes what it means to be better together.”
In 2013, Snelten joined Layne Christensen, a company he was impressed with its large drill rigs while working at his family’s business, as a project manager. He subsequently changed his NGWA membership section from scientist and engineer to contractor.
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While serving on the Illinois Association of Groundwater Professionals Board of Directors, Snelten was encouraged by Larry Lyons to volunteer at the national level. He began volunteering on the NGWA Awards Committee in 2006 and would eventually chair it twice.
Snelten’s hunger to serve continued with the Public Awareness Committee in 2009 and later the Affiliate State Contacts in 2012.
“You start with a little bit of time, and you find out, okay, that wasn’t so bad,” he says. “It might’ve been an hour a month or something, and it kind of becomes addictive, and you’re like, ‘I can do more.’”
Also in 2012, Snelten was elected president of the Illinois Association of Groundwater Professionals. He served as president until 2015 and helped geothermal legislation get passed, opening his eyes to all it takes (lobbying, networking, etc.) at the state level.
While Snelten knows that the time needed to volunteer can be a mental roadblock for some, especially today with heavy backlogs and not enough staff, he cautions against instantly closing the door to volunteering.
“The time commitment can be as great as you want it to be, or as little as you want it to be,” he explains. “I think if you don’t get involved, the industry can slip and affect you in a negative way.
“But it’s taking that first step and most of the time somebody just wants to be asked to help. They want to help, but they don’t know how to go about doing it. I would encourage people to reach out and say, ‘Hey, I want to be involved.’”
Larry Lyons, president of Lyons Well Drilling Co. Inc. in Stockton, Illinois, has known Snelten for about 20 years. Since 2014, the two have served together on the Illinois Department of Public Health Board (IDPHB) that administers the licensing of water well and pump installation contractors.
“I always hoped I would be able to appoint Brian to the NGWA Board,” Larry Lyons says. “He is smart, far smarter than I. He is ambitious, far more ambitious than I am now. And he loves this industry and approaches it with a passion to do the best job he possibly can.”
So much so that Larry Lyons likens Snelten to a bulldog, citing his tenacious zeal to efficiently protect and utilize the state’s groundwater. The passion fuels Snelten to take on the complexities that come with the lifelong IDPHB appointment.
For example, when writing new rules and groundwater laws, Snelten must consider that Illinois has various-sized companies—from one-man operations to those as large as Layne Christensen.
“Another thing in Illinois is the size of our state and different types of water wells the state needs to provide clean, potable water,” Larry Lyons explains. “If you live in Chicago and decide to drive to Texas, you will be halfway there before you leave the state of Illinois.”
Among others, Snelten met NGWA Past Presidents Scott Fowler, CWD/PI, Tom Downey, CWD/PI, and Alan Eades, CWD/PI, CVCLD, through volunteering for NGWA.
Eades told Snelten he’d be a good candidate to run for the NGWA Board of Directors and asked if he was ready at Groundwater Week 2013 in Nashville, Tennessee. “And I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, let’s do this,’” Snelten remembers.
At Groundwater Week 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada, Snelten successfully ran for the Association’s Board of Directors and Contractors Section Board of Directors. His three-year term saw him bring his state association legislative experience to the NGWA Government Affairs Committee in 2016. He later chaired the committee in 2018 and 2019 alongside “talented people who worked tirelessly and had a passion for helping NGWA succeed in its goals.”
“It’s one of those things that’s important,” he says of government affairs. “We don’t really pay attention to legislative stuff because we’re like, ‘Ah, that doesn’t affect me.’ But when it does affect you, you’re like, ‘Oh man, I should’ve been involved with that.’
“So, trying to get that message out to our members—not so much on the federal level, but especially on the state level—we do need to be involved and know our legislators and let them hear our voices. Because if we’re not involved with it, those decisions can come back and bite us. Those experiences in the past for me have been really important. If I can share those experiences with others and encourage others to get involved, I think then we’re moving in the right direction.”
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Snelten takes leadership training seriously and has been working through his company’s employee development and training program.
Through Granite University’s in-person (before the pandemic) and online classes, Snelten has been a sponge, picking up a variety of soft skills. The latest training focused on how he perceives himself, leadership qualities, strengths, weaknesses, and how to communicate with different personalities.
While serving two three-year terms on the NGWA Board of Directors, Snelten underwent similar training with board members who looked at what type of qualities they each possess.
“I’ve had a lot of that over the last couple of years,” he says, “so that’s something I’ve really leaned on in my board service. This person might come and say this, but I understand that’s their personality. So, okay, for me to reach them and understand them, I might have to change how I present something to them. Having that type of leadership training has been awesome.”
Snelten aims to use the newfound communication skills to help educate industry members on a long-running issue for them: how to successfully run a business.
While The Groundwater Foundation’s 2020 McEllhiney Lecture focused on running a business, and former NGWA president Pitz helped create the NGWA Drilling Cost Calculator and NGWA Pump Installation Cost Calculator more than a handful of years ago, Snelten thinks more education is needed.
“Just because you have a low price and you get all the work, it doesn’t mean you’re a successful business,” he says. “Surprisingly, contractors are busier than ever during COVID, and so cash flow is good for most contractors. But you get to a point where you can’t get materials and you can’t do your jobs . . . your cash flow starts to fall, and the business starts to struggle.
“If we can do a better job of teaching the business side of it, I think that may help remove the ‘I want to undercut somebody’-type mentality.”
Snelten saw firsthand how a small business is run while growing up and learning the ropes of the industry at A & C Snelten Inc. in Lake Barrington, Illinois. The company started in 1905 and Snelten’s father, Cory, is still running the business.
“There were four family members who taught life lessons and the industry and the passion for it,” he says, “so it’s more of me thanking them for their insight and support to get to this point versus anything else.”
Now Snelten is passing on his knowledge of the industry to his children, 12-year-old daughter Avery, and 9-year-old son Cameron. When they were younger and asked about his job, Snelten remembers telling them he provides safe, clean drinking water to people in need.
“It’s noble,” says Snelten, whose wife is Kirstin. “The other part of our industry is it’s a very proud industry. A lot of contractors are very proud of what they do because the service is important. We’re very lucky in the United States to have the availability of clean drinking water. Other countries around the world have to travel miles to get dirty water, so we’re very blessed to have clean drinking water.”
The noble profession which Snelten proudly promotes to his kids needs the next generation to take interest in it. He believes it starts at the elementary and high school level and supports the mission to get more of The Groundwater Foundation’s Awesome Aquifer Kits into classrooms.
“Because if we can get those into the schools and start teaching them at a young age that ‘Hey, this is important, this is where your water comes from, and there’s a whole industry that goes along with it that has good-paying jobs that is rewarding work,’” he says, “those are things that you can put in kids’ minds when they’re young.”
Snelten was one of the 3419 in attendance as a college student at Groundwater Week 1999 in Nashville, Tennessee. A delegate for Illinois, it was Snelten’s first Groundwater Week.
“I remember sitting in that crowd and watching and being amazed by the organization and kind of saying to myself, ‘Hopefully one day I can be up on that stage and be part of the organization,’” he recalls.
Snelten finds it fitting to be sworn in as NGWA president in Nashville, Tennessee, the site where he fell in love with the Association and a desire to volunteer.
“It’ll be emotional for me, but exciting with everyone getting back together,” he says.
Mike Price is the senior editor of Water Well Journal. In addition to his WWJ responsibilities, Price contributes to the Association’s scientific publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at (800) 551-7379, ext. 1541.