NGWA Turns 75

Published On: August 21, 2023By Categories: Features, National Ground Water Association

It’s been a run of amazing, important, and fun happenings for the Association through the years.

By Thad Plumley

The year 1948 was a pivotal one.

The Cold War was raging, and the Marshall Plan began to help rebuild war-ravaged Europe. Harry Truman was President of the United States and earned a second term when he defeated Thomas E. Dewey in November, no matter what a famous newspaper headline said.

The first color newsreel was used in Pasadena, California, and the first tape recorder was sold as the world began to evolve. The stock car racing organization NASCAR was founded, giving Americans a new way to pass their time.

And for those Groundwater Week attendees who have been to Las Vegas, Nevada, countless times, Raymond Teller, the magician who is one half of the duo Penn & Teller, was born. Also born that year was football Hall of Famer—or crazy football announcer depending on your age—Terry Bradshaw.

Finally, another entity was born too: the National Ground Water Association.

Yes, NGWA is celebrating 75 years of aiding the groundwater industry. What started as an idea of a small group of determined water well professionals in the Midwest is now an association of nearly 10,100 professionals from all around the globe.

The NWWA Exposition in 1979 saw 3,752 attendees see exhibits in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

How did that happen? With innumerable actions by incredible and heroic people. Too many to list, here are 75 key things that shaped the Association you know today.

1. The temporary National Water Well Association is formed in June 1948 at the National Exposition of Water Well Equipment, Suppliers, and Services in Peoria, Illinois. Understanding there could be strength in numbers and that an entity could be a clearinghouse for resolving critical issues, 19 men join NWWA. The charter members use the following dues structure: $10 for contractors and manufacturing members, $25 for a corporate membership, and $5 for “technical men.”

2. The first president and the Association’s primary founder is William McEllhiney of Brookline, Illinois. He was the president and owner of J.P. Miller Co., a water well drilling firm in suburban Chicago, and president of the Illinois Well Drillers Association at the time.

3. A permanent NWWA is established at an organizational meeting in November 1948 in Chicago. Robert Storm, formerly of the Illinois Geological Survey, is hired to be the executive secretary of the Association beginning on January 1, 1949.

The Groundwater Expo in 2006 had a record 6,618 attendees descend on Las Vegas, Nevada.

4. One of the first issues tackled by the young Association is representing groundwater professionals in 1950 in the battle for more steel allocations and other materials. Materials were hard to come by with the outbreak of the Korean War, and a lack of statistical data made the fight even tougher. Growing membership to get data becomes a goal.

5. The NWWA Standard Form Contract Committee in 1953 recommends that all contractors use a written contract or agreement for all business operations to increase their professionalism.

6. The Association begins offering the NWWA Group Insurance Plan in 1954, which provides contracting companies and their employees with the opportunity to buy low-cost group life insurance.

7. The 1955 convention in Long Beach, California, features a general session in which Claude Laval Jr. shows an underwater camera that he developed for taking photos in wells.

8. NWWA hosts its convention in 1956 in Columbus, Ohio, and the Manufacturers and Suppliers Division Pump Committee generates interest from contractors with a two-hour session on submersible pumps, a significant new development in the industry.

9. NWWA takes advantage of the public relations opportunity that came with having its annual exposition in 1958 in Washington, D.C., and had 17 rigs parked in front of the Sheraton Park Hotel as part of an outdoor equipment exhibit.

Scott King, PG, P.Geo., LHG, became the first scientist to become NGWA president in 2018.

10. With contractor membership dropping, Storm travels the country making the pitch for NWWA in 1959. In all, he visits 31 state conventions and travels 50,000 miles.

11. The 1960 Exposition in Pittsburgh features a unique way to discuss public perception. Staged was a skit titled “A Fight for Your Life” that presented a courtroom scene depicting issues of public concern about water systems. The water well industry defended itself in court against accusations about well systems.

12. The NWWA Library begins in 1960 with a $1000 donation from Water Well Journal. The hope was that the library would fill the years-long need for industry data and information.

13. The year 1961 is a hard one for the industry with most contractors reporting business was just fair to poor. Reflecting the tough times was the Annual Exposition in Miami having a record-low attendance of just 229.

14. Ground Water debuts as NGWA’s first peer-reviewed technical journal in 1963. The journal helps NWWA’s Technical Division membership to rocket from 76 in 1958 to 335 in 1963. William Walton of the Illinois State Water Survey is the first editor. Still published today, Groundwater is the leading international journal focused exclusively on groundwater.

The pandemic in 2020 forced Groundwater Week and its education to go virtual.

15. NWWA and the Water Systems Council vigorously fight the Urban Water Supply and Sewage Control Act, commonly called the “Model Law” in 1964. It was a model code proposed by the U.S, Public Health Service saying some health problems are caused by water well and septic tank failures and encouraging more public water facilities. A hearing is held, and the Public Health Service agrees to work with industry officials to revise codes.

16. NWWA, the Water Systems Council, and other organizations write and submit the “Water Well Construction and Pump Installation Act” as an alternative to the Model Law in 1965, helping usher in the goal of making a bigger impact in Washington, D.C.

17. Jay Lehr, Ph.D., chairs three sessions at the NWWA Exposition in 1966 in Columbus, Ohio, covering topics on general groundwater, groundwater recharge, and groundwater economics. Two years later, he becomes NWWA’s first full-time chief executive. He holds the position from 1968-1991 and the Association sees significant growth in his time.

18. The decision to hire Lehr is made at the NWWA Exposition in September 1967 in Des Moines, Iowa. There are several other big decisions made too: to establish a permanent headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, and hire four other full-time workers.

19. Lehr hits the ground running literally in 1968. The day before he addresses the Empire State Well Drillers Association, he runs in the Boston Marathon. In all, he visits 38 state drillers meetings in his first year.

20. Much of Lehr’s talks around the country in 1968 center on the value of NWWA membership. Membership dues that year went from $30 to $40 for individual contractors, $50 to $75 for corporate contractors, and $10 to $15 for individual technical members. Lehr’s talks explain the tangible and intangible benefits cost members just $3.33 per month. The extra revenue enabled NWWA financial footing to solidify and set the Association up for years to come.

21. NWWA acquires controlling interest in Water Well Journal Publishing Co. in 1969. Lehr serves as the publication’s editor-in-chief from 1970-1991.

22. The NGWA Voluntary Certification Program begins in 1970, the only national certification program for contractors and pump installers in the groundwater industry. Today, there are certifications for certified well drillers, pump installers, and vertical closed loop drillers.

23. NWWA earns its first federal grant in 1970 when the Office of Water Resources Research of the U.S. Department of the Interior gives the Association a $45,770 grant to extract and document from the oil drilling industry all technology applicable to the water well industry.

24. NWWA is busy in 1971 in Washington, D.C. Lehr speaks before a U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on public health and the environment and NWWA President Garmon C. McCall speaks at a hearing on subsurface water injection wells. McCall is also appointed to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency advisory committee on drinking water standards.

25. The Water Well Journal Publishing Co. acquires the publication World Irrigation, and changes its name to Irrigation Journal in 1971. The goal is to create interest in NWWA with the publication’s audience of manufacturers and suppliers of irrigation equipment.

26. The textbook Water Well Technology, by Michael D. Campbell and Lehr, is published in 1973. The book ends up undergoing 12 printings and selling thousands of copies worldwide.

27. The first discussion about changing the Association’s name to National Ground Water Association takes place in 1974 with Lehr writing a WWJ editorial supporting the change.

28. Lehr appears as a guest on the Today Show in 1975 talking about the controversy of the Mississippi River water causing cancer to New Orleans residents.

29. NWWA capitalizes on the pet rock craze of 1976 by promoting it will provide a detailed geology of any pet rocks sent to it as well as provide a vial of groundwater that surrounded the rock before it reached the surface. As a result, NWWA receives rocks from all over the country.

30. NWWA publishes in 1976 the Manual of Water Well Construction Practices, a comprehensive overview of current well construction methods. The still-popular text was updated in 1988 and 2017.

31. NWWA has a heat pump installed in a house in 1977 in central Ohio and monitors its use. WWJ’s April issue speaks of how groundwater can be an energy source and generates interest all around the country. By the end of 1978, more than 10,000 requests for information about ground source heat pumps had been made to NWWA.

32. A new NWWA publication, Ground Water Heat Pump Journal, debuts in March 1980.

33. As the field of groundwater monitoring emerged as a technology, Groundwater Monitoring & Review debuts in 1981 as a new peer-reviewed publication. Now, Groundwater Monitoring & Remediation, the publication remains today as a popular Scientists and Engineers Section benefit.

34. The Second National Symposium on Aquifer Restoration and Ground Water Monitoring in 1982 becomes the largest groundwater conference held at the time when 560 professionals attend.

35. A Spanish edition of WWJ is introduced in 1982.

36. The Association’s certification program is going strong in 1982 and has three contractors pass all the requirements to qualify as the first Master Drillers: Bob Heater, Stan Griffis, and Joseph Cannon.

37. Pat Alcorn, NWWA’s director of membership services, becomes the first and only woman to receive the Association’s prestigious Oliver Award in 1982. She is also the first staff member to earn the honor.

38. NWWA and CompuServe team up to offer “Water-Line” via the early days of the Internet in 1983. Also debuting is the National Ground Water Information Center, which has a database of 20,000 groundwater references.

39. Among the 40 educational conferences held in 1984 is Ground Water and Petroleum Hydrocarbons—Problems and Solutions. It comes to be known as simply “Petroleum Hydrocarbons” and is held annually for years to come and becomes one of the Association’s most popular events.

40. NGWA’s Kevin McCray leads NGWA’s first foreign mission trip in 1985 to help expand the Association’s international presence. The first trip was to Australia and New Zealand. All told, McCray leads 15 such trips, including excursions to China (2008) and Russia (2011).

41. To foster interest and excellence in groundwater science and technology, the Henry Darcy Series in Groundwater Science  is established in 1986. Its first lecturer is John A. Cherry, Ph.D., and his talk “Contaminant Migration Processes: A Field Perspective” is presented at universities around the country the following year.

42. The database of the National Ground Water Information Center has its named changed in 1986 to Ground Water On-Line and its software is changed to be more user friendly.

43. The education business is booming for NWWA in 1987 as it hosts an amazing 106 courses and conferences throughout the year.

44. The most successful course NWWA hosts in 1987 is the first National Outdoor Action Conference on Aquifer Restoration, Ground Water Monitoring, and Geophysical Methods. The Las Vegas event was a gold mine of information for the 1,200 attendees. There were concurrent multi-day short courses, concurrent conference sessions, and an outdoor demonstration area that had three demonstrations occurring at any one time.

45. There are 15 months between conventions as the annual event moves to December in 1988 from its previous time in the fall after a survey of contractors states a show when they are less busy would be best. The 40th anniversary convention takes place in Las Vegas and sets a then-record with 4,860 attendees.

46. Worth Pickard, the NWWA president in 1990, conceives the idea of a one-week conference for young people beginning their career in the groundwater industry. The first NWWA Future Leaders Conference takes place in Dublin, Ohio, and is attended by 20 future contractors.

47. The name change finally happens in 1991. The National Ground Water Association debuts 17 years after first being mentioned in WWJ by Lehr. President Cecil Webb tells attendees at the convention, “I’m the last president of the National Water Well Association and Ron Hiddleston is the first president of the National Ground Water Association.”

48. A Safety Committee and Industry Regulations Subcommittee are instrumental in getting drilling rigs considered separately from private carriers in DOT regulations regarding axle weight and other measurements.

49. David Schmitt replaces Lehr as NGWA’s executive director in 1991, a position he holds until 1995.

50. The year 1992 ends as NGWA hits a high in membership with 25,086 members.

51. The technical journal, Groundwater Monitoring & Review, changes its name in 1993 to Groundwater Monitoring & Remediation to better reflect the expansion of the environmental segment of the industry.

52. NGWA makes a significant move to make an even bigger impact in Washington, D.C., in 1993 with the creation of a government affairs committee and the hiring of lobbyist firm Dutko and Associates.

53. NGWA assists contractors by working with the EPA in 1994 after an explosive report comes out discussing potential lead-leaching characteristics of submersible pumps with brass and bronze components.

54. McCray becomes NGWA’s third full-time executive director in 1995. He was first hired in 1975 as an assistant editor with WWJ.

55. NGWA moves its headquarters in 1996 to its current location in Westerville, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus. It is the sixth office location in the Association’s history.

56. Governance, an issue about the Association’s governing structure that had been around for years, is voted on at the 1996 convention. The meeting, scheduled for 4:30-6:30 p.m., goes until 8 p.m. to allow everyone to express their views.

57. NGWA debuts its website in April 1996, containing information about membership, education, benefits, journals, and more.

58. The Association develops a program for well owners to become better stewards of groundwater with a website, Wellowner.org, and other materials in 1999. Today, Wellowner.org averages more than 20,000 users each month who view more than 50,000 pages a month.

59. The McEllhiney Lecture Series in Water Well Technology is established in 2000 and debuts in 2001 when Hans-Olaf Pfannkuch, Ph.D., presents “Pump Tests for Practical People” at groundwater events around the country.

60. WWJ earns APEX Awards for the first time in 2003, including one for an article on a rescue of trapped miners in Pennsylvania. The publication has won 40 awards the last 21 years, the most in the groundwater industry.

61. The book Transfer of Technology is published by NGWA in 2003. It consists of 31 WWJ columns by John L’Espoir and is a popular seller for years, going through several printings. A downloadable version can still be purchased today.

62. The Association’s annual convention, the Groundwater Expo, sets a record for attendance with 6,618 in 2006 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Everything was big: attendees came from 38 countries and there were 315 exhibitors on 76,600 square feet of sold exhibit space.

63. NGWA publishes its first best suggested practice in 2010 titled Managing a Flowing Well. Today, NGWA has 19 BSPs on a variety of industry-related topics.

64. To assist in building business profitability in the industry, the Association produces in 2010 Water Well Drilling Agreement and Instructions for Use, a ready-to-use contract reviewed by NGWA’s legal counsel. NGWA also has contracts for pump installation and well maintenance as well as business cost calculators for drilling and pump installation.

65. A group of hardworking volunteers help NGWA craft in 2014 the NGWA 01-14 Water Well Construction Standard, which encompasses municipal, residential, agricultural, monitoring, and industrial water production wells.

66. Groundwater and PFAS: State of Knowledge and Practice is published in 2017. The guidance document is crafted with the aid of 36 volunteers and is one of the first guidance pieces published on the group of contaminants.

67. Terry S. Morse, CAE, CIC, replaces McCray in 2018 to become the Association’s fourth full-time executive. The NGWA’s CEO remains in the position today.

68. The Groundwater Foundation and NGWA’s National Ground Water Research and Educational Foundation merge in 2018. From this comes a program that focuses on groundwater education with products such as the Awesome Aquifer Kit.

69. Scott King, PG, P.Geo., LHG, a senior associate hydrogeologist from Buffalo, New York, becomes NGWA president at Groundwater Week 2018 in Las Vegas, marking the first time a president has been a member of the Scientists and Engineers Section. Jason House, LG, PG, becomes the second in 2023.

70. The NGWA Learning Center debuts on the Association’s website in September 2020. The online learning platform has hundreds of hours of on-demand webinars and virtual courses as well as product training from industry manufacturers.

71. The months of work done creating the Learning Center is critical to the Association as it smoothly pulls off a virtual Groundwater Week in December 2020. Unable to meet in person due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2,490 individuals take in four days of educational sessions, watch product demonstrations, and visit with 76 exhibitors in a virtual Exhibit Hall.

72. To help offset the expected personnel shortage, Drilling Basics Online, a series of groundwater online training courses, is created in association with Oklahoma State University in 2021. There are currently five courses, each taking approximately eight hours to complete, and others are planned for the future.

73. Kathy Butcher retires as NGWA’s director of education in 2022 after serving the Association for 49 years and received its Honorary Member Award in 2023.

74. NGWA and The Groundwater Foundation debut the Sponsor a Classroom program in 2022 that provides five Awesome Aquifer Kits and a subscription to an electronic version of the kit to a school classroom. In the first year, 223 classrooms in 41 states receive kits, impacting 6,440 students.

75. While it hasn’t happened yet, it can be reported that NGWA will celebrate its birthday in style at Groundwater Week 2023, December 5-7 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

It’s been an amazing 75 years. We hope you’re there to celebrate and share your memories in the City of Lights.


Thad Plumley is the editor of WWJ and the director of publications for the National Ground Water Association. He is currently the secretary for the AM&P Network Associations Council Advisory Board. The AM&P Network is a national association for publishing professionals.. He can be reached at tplumley@ngwa.org, or (800) 551-7379, ext. 1594.

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