Predicting the Future

A 1978 article got a lot right when discussing how the groundwater industry would look this century.

By Thad Plumley

You wake up at 6 a.m. and a freshly brewed cup of coffee is waiting for you. A few minutes and the push of a button later, you’re instantly on a video conference with the supervisors of your drilling crews.

Sound like your morning today?

It was also the science fiction-like beginning of a Water Well Journal article decades ago that attempted to preview the future of the groundwater industry. The article was titled “Water Well Drilling 2025: A Look into Our Crystal Ball” and published in WWJ’s June 1978 issue.

I stumbled across the 43-year-old article while reading issues from years gone by as I prepared to write a recent
installment of this department, 75 Years of WWJ.

It has been a lot of fun looking through the journal’s archives as we celebrate our anniversary this year. The old publications may be weathered a bit, but they are an absolute trove of excellent and timely water well drilling content, great images, and wonderful covers—oh, the artistic covers from long ago!

Amusing images on the cover and atop the “Water Well Drilling 2025” article jumped out at me a few months ago, forcing me to sit down and immediately read the article. It became obvious right away that the author, WWJ Editor Anita Bacco Stanley, had a lot of fun with the opening paragraphs.

Along with the freshly brewed coffee and video conference, Stanley added: “You don’t need to discuss the weather. Weather is controlled and it rains only at night, but never enough to interfere with your work.”

Her contractor also used a “nuclear-powered rig” that “uses heat to melt the formations it passes through, casing the boreholes as it progresses.”

How clever!

But the article was more than just tongue-in-cheek dreams. It was spot-on in many parts. In fact, it was neat to see how much Stanley and the groundwater professionals she talked to got right.

She wrote about submersible pumps that could someday operate on solar energy, are corrosion-resistant, and equipped with built-in protections against transient external conditions. I think we can safely say, “yep,” “yep,” and “yep.”

Pump manufacturers told Stanley they thought submersibles would eventually command the market, become smaller, and made with lightweight materials. Also discussed were revolutionary impeller designs that allow pumps to move water at great depths with less horsepower—and thus, less energy.

The drill rig manufacturers told Stanley they saw a future where control systems were more sophisticated and a world where “new electronic gadgetry will decrease the necessary number of manual functions for well drilling.”

Stanley described downhole video cameras so small contractors did not have to pull a pump when they wanted to use one as well as video images that were in color. That description had to seem absurd to everyone reading WWJ in 1978. I’m sure some people laughed out loud.

Now? There’s a chance you have a downhole camera in your office that is two inches in diameter and capable of producing amazing color images. Your tool may even have a camera on the top, one on the side, and different settings for the lights. Those features were not even in the dreams in 1978.

Sure, some of the predictions didn’t happen and others will never happen. I don’t think any of us should be holding our breath for that nuclear rig! But it is amazing how much the article got right.

The article concluded with some final predictions that could have also been viewed as marching orders for those industry professionals reading it. It stated that continued advances will make it imperative groundwater professionals stay up to date through publications like WWJ and continuing education workshops.

It added experience will become a premium and some family businesses will be rounded out with sons and daughters joining the firm after getting college degrees in engineering, hydrology, or accounting.

The article’s final paragraph says: “Your position in your community will become even more important as surface water shortages and pollution force our growing population to turn to groundwater—and the person who can produce it.”

Sometimes what’s old is new again. It’s 2021 and as I read that I think, “yep.”


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.