Water Well Journal Q&A

Last Updated: February 20, 2024By Categories: Drilling, Features, Workforce Development


The Groundwater Foundation’s 2023 McEllhiney Lecturer shares his vast knowledge on drilling fluids and additives.

By Mike Price

Fred Rothauge, CWD, Hydro Resources Inc.

With 40 years in the drilling and drilling fluids engineering business, Fred Rothauge, CWD, discovered early on in his career that he enjoyed the water well industry the most.

Rothauge found that he enjoyed the challenge of water wells requiring a higher degree of formation protection than wells in the oil and gas or mining industries.

“We’re going to drink this water and we won’t frac past the borehole damage to make the well produce,” says Rothauge, who oversees drilling fluids well rehabilitation along with serving as technical advisor for Hydro Resources Inc. in Fort Lupton, Colorado.

“That meant we needed to design our drilling fluid program to maximize yield. Over the years I have worked to teach the importance of the drilling fluids program as it pertains to production and not just drilling the hole.”

The water well industry has benefited from Rothauge sharing his expertise at both the state and national levels. He serves on the National Ground Water Association’s Contractors Section Board of Directors and various NGWA committees, including the Safety Task Force and Southwest Regional Policy Committee.

At the state level, Rothauge served as president of the Colorado Water Well Contractors Association in 2019. Rothauge serves on the board for the Mountain States Ground Water Association and is chairman of the American Ground Water Trust. He coauthored papers on drilling fluid products and is a coauthor of Johnson Screens’ Groundwater & Wells, Third Edition. He also is a licensed water well driller in eight western states.

“There have been many people who I look up to as ones who helped me understand drilling fluids from way back,” Rothauge shares.

Most recently, Rothauge was named The Groundwater Foundation’s 2023 McEllhiney Lecturer. He will present the lecture, “Are We Creating Long-Term Groundwater Assets or Just Installing Wells?

Since the August issue of Water Well Journal focuses on drilling fluids and additives, we wanted to check in with Rothauge to find out more on this topic and how it will factor into the 2023 McEllhiney Lecture.

Water Well Journal: How has the high workload, labor shortage, and supply chain issues in the water well industry impacted the selection and use of drilling fluids and additives?
Fred Rothauge, CWD: Our company, like many, is fortunate that we have an abundant amount of work and could take on more if we were able to find and retain a qualified workforce. Equipment is available for a price but people to run the equipment is much harder to find today and even harder is finding people with the experience to manage our projects successfully.

Because of material shortages and long lead times, we have to look far ahead at anticipated projects that have not been awarded yet and maintain an overstocking of these items that may not be available at the time the projects are released. Drilling fluid cost has increased substantially, which is difficult to absorb when pricing increases come after the project has been bid. Several of our preferred drilling fluid products have been discontinued or are not available, which has forced us to look at less desirable products that still meet the NSF 60 certification requirements.

For our crews, changing product names can be confusing in itself, but as one knows, when you start changing products, training needs to happen as to the proper use of these different products, their limitations, and functionality.

Lastly, we must not take quality control for granted. We need to more closely monitor the product specification, certification, and perform more frequent drilling fluid testing at the well site, as we have seen problems with product performance since the COVID-19 pandemic.

WWJ: In addition to drilling methods and well construction, you taught on drilling fluids by conducting the complete mud testing procedures during the three-day “Groundwater and Wells” annual class in October 2021. How did you convey the importance of maintaining good fluids properties?
Rothauge: I’m hopeful that in the 2021 “Groundwater and Wells” annual class I was able to convey that the drilling fluids program should be thought of as one of the more important tools in the toolbox. Too often drillers tend to think of the drilling fluid as an added expense and an area to save money by taking shortcuts and not appreciating its value.

We often hear that hole conditions were different than expected and problems were not anticipated and therefore unavoidable . . . when in fact having and following a managed drilling fluids program which utilizes the assistance of a water well drilling fluids engineer who is knowledgeable about the area could many times have prevented the hole problem and hopefully can demonstrate the benefit by achieving wells which develop faster and provide higher specific capacities and efficiency.

Just like maintaining the maintenance on your drill or pump rig, a well-maintained drilling fluids program ensures lower operating cost and maintenance over the life of the well.

WWJ: Which steps get missed the most during mud testing procedures?
Rothauge: Perhaps the step that gets missed the most is the one that comes last and that is cleaning up the equipment and tools used to make the test. I’ve visited many projects where the equipment was not properly cleaned, and the numbers obtained were inaccurate because of this.

Several drillers have learned to follow the advice of their chemical provider and do so religiously, and for the conventional circulation driller doing this and following the advice of the chemical manufacturer and provider may be enough to keep from encountering hole problems.

Where I see the problem is for the reverse circulation drillers using water-based fluids, we rarely see rheological test results which I feel is critical for maintaining optimal fluid properties and minimal borehole damage. A key factor that weight will become an issue is your gel strength. Once you start to carry gel strength, you then start to increase mud weight and sand content.

The water well industry has benefited from Rothauge sharing his 40 years of expertise on drilling fluids and well rehabilitation at both the state and national levels.

Therefore, maintaining 0 gel strength in your system assures you will maintain the lowest possible weight and sand content by allowing your solids to settle out in the pit before going back downhole.

The other step that gets missed is recording the mud test results as they are taken. If they are recorded, it is easier to start seeing a trend which can be used to determine what point you address the change by adding water, chemical, fixing your solids control equipment, or whatever needs to be done to achieve the desired results.

WWJ: How does your wholistic approach to constructing a water well impact the selection of the type of drilling fluid and its amounts?
Rothauge: When considering a drilling fluids program for a specific job, I start with the drilling method to be used and then with as much geological information available, I look at what system will provide the most formation protection with the least amount of borehole damage. We must remember that for a highly efficient well we need to develop out all our drilling fluid and formation fines left over from the drilling process.

WWJ: How do drilling fluids and additives impact the likelihood of a positive outcome when it comes to well rehabilitation?
Rothauge: Drilling fluids when used properly protect the wellbore and minimize formation damage and once again with proper development—generally utilizing dispersant chemistry chlorine—they are removed along with the formation fines, providing a clean pathway for water to enter the well. If we can get all the material out, then we have less opportunity for bacterial growth and premature plugging of the pathway.

WWJ: What is the number-one misconception when it comes to purchasing drilling fluids or additives?
Rothauge: Too often people look at the cost and not the benefit. It is in our DNA to save money by going cheap when we don’t realize the impact difference of one product or drilling fluid type over another. Bentonite muds are cheaper but much more difficult to develop out of the well than polymer fluids and often lead to a less efficient, lower value water well.

WWJ: You’ve worked on complex projects around the world. Which projects come to mind that required your drilling fluids expertise the most and what did you learn from the projects?
Rothauge: I have to say some of the most challenging projects are the ones in my own backyard in areas I have worked my entire career in. The groundwater dynamics are changing as we pull the aquifers down and we encounter loss circulation and hole stability issues that we never encountered with higher formation pressures and higher head on the aquifer. We also see well development methods that were once sufficient becoming less efficient, creating a need to rethink the well development program.

WWJ: What is the one piece of essential information on drilling fluids and additives that you’d like to convey to water well contractors?
Rothauge: A drilling fluids program should be part of every project—whether drilling with an air- or water-base system— and adhered to from the start of the drilling program through well development. Your drilling fluids program is an essential tool used to keep you from having problems and should not only be considered once you get into problems. Drilling fluids are not magic, but they can keep you from having to drill the well twice. Let’s get our drilling fluids program right the first time so we don’t have to redrill the well.

WWJ: Lastly, how will your 2023 McEllhiney Lecture, “Are We Creating Long-Term Groundwater Assets or Just Installing Wells?”, relate to drilling fluids and additives?
Rothauge: My presentation will look at protecting the wellbore with drilling fluids and the need to remove the drilling fluid using proper development methods. It will look at how the drilling fluid program may influence water production and the value of the asset.

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 mprice@ngwa.org, or at (800) 551-7379, ext. 1541.

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