Hidden Opportunities for Learning and Collaboration

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Never pass up an opportunity to be the groundwater professional.

By Michael J. Schnieders, PG, PH-GW

I received a call several months back from a sanitarian in a nearby county.

The sanitarian, charged with environmental health for their county, was seeking guidance on a shallow groundwater issue. A septic system installer had encountered water at 2 feet below the ground surface. From the information presented, it sounded like the back-hoe operator had encountered a small, perched aquifer. The sanitarian and the installer were both shocked and confused by this occurrence. In an effort to stem the flow, the hole was re-packed with clay and the system’s location moved to another site on the property.

Aside from changes in the geology, aquifers, and topography, each of us likely encounters a myriad of governing regulations and ordinances within our area of operation. Municipal, county, state, tribal, and federal laws, as well as a host of other special circumstances, can influence the work we do and guide (or frustrate) the decisions we make.

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The interesting thing I’ve found is most of these regulations are based on political boundaries and few if any, take into account the aquifer or recharge zones affecting the aquifer. Sometimes the guidelines and regulations are made in a common sense approach, many times they are not. Many times, those enforcing the regulations had little to do with their development. Variances often can occur, but only in a proactive environment, and only when the correct information can be presented.

So back to my call. The sanitarian was baffled by the shallow occurrence of groundwater. The installer was elated to find he hadn’t struck a rural water line. But beyond that, the installer didn’t have an answer either. The occurrence of shallow groundwater within that part of the state is not uncommon, but at that depth and with somewhat artesian conditions, it is abnormal. The sanitarian and installer wanted the best for the environment and the homeowner but were limited by their experiences, education, and in all honesty, the sheer magnitude of responsibilities each of them face in their daily workload.

How many of us have had the opportunity to educate “the other side?” As the professional landscape changes due to technology, retirement, budgets, and reorganization, we will have many situations in which we find ourselves working with individuals who have little or no understanding of wells, aquifers, or the hydrologic cycle.

This is the time for collaboration, to develop shareholders in our work, not to ignore or instigate animosity. This is not the time to “baffle with bullsh*t,” but the time to discuss the role each of us plays and enlighten the individual about our daily job. Invite the regulator out to the jobsite to develop an understanding of the drilling process, the purpose of a test hole, or the valuable information hidden within cuttings. Share with the new engineer in training common characteristics of groundwater flow or water quality within an area. But don’t pass an opportunity to learn yourself—ask why a specific setback regulation is changing, or ask the lab technician what possible causes of influence or interference could be a result of sampling methods.

In the case of the sanitarian and installer, I ended up presenting a short course on groundwater and wells at their quarterly training session. In addition to meeting many new faces, I was able to attend a session outlining proposed changes to the sanitary code within their county.

How can this impact your daily business? Think back to the decisions you make in your daily life—be they for your home, business, or health. Which electrician do you call: the friendly, knowledgeable one, or the grumpy, combative one? Which doctor do you prefer to see: the one who will give you a prescription and quickly send you on your way, or the one who takes the time to understand your ailment and discusses the diagnosis and treatment?

And in that nearby county? I’ve completed one project and have two on the schedule for later this spring.

Never pass up an opportunity to be the groundwater professional.


Michael J. Schnieders, PG, PH-GWMichael J. Schnieders, PG, PH-GW, is a professional geologist currently serving as the principle hydrogeologist and president of Water Systems Engineering Inc. in Ottawa, Kansas. Schnieders’ primary work involves water resource investigation and management, specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of fouled well systems. Schnieders was the 2017 McEllhiney Distinguished Lecturer in Water Well Technology. He can be reached at mschnieders@h2osystems.com.

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