As I prepared for the National  Ground Water Association’s 2013 Groundwater Expo in Nashville, I wanted to take a look at the state of the industry and offer a few thoughts on its near future.

In 2005, the United States withdrew 82.6 billion gallons of groundwater per day. That estimate, from the U.S. Geological Survey, gives us the most recent federal snapshot of the importance of water well drillers, pump installers and other contractors supporting and servicing this vital resource. Since then, we’ve had a downturn driven by housing, deep recession and tepid recovery. After all that, I think we could safely assume that U.S. groundwater withdrawals probably match that 82.6 billion gpd figure, or even exceed it a bit due to population growth. There are almost 17 million more Americans now than 2005.

Environmental Protection Agency data say nearly 90 million Americans rely on community water systems that source groundwater. Another 15 million get their water from a well. Drillers gave us access to that water.

The EPA says United States public water systems will need about $384 billion in capital improvements

The EPA says United States public water systems will need about $384 billion in capital improvements in the next 20 years. That’s a lot of business for contractors in the water sectors. Source: iStock

In a report to Congress early this year, the EPA said the U.S. will need about $384 billion in capital improvements to public water systems over the next 20 years. That’s all public water projects, from well to tap to treatment. The slice of that estimate for “source water infrastructure” comes in just over $20 billion. According to the report, that includes “constructing or rehabilitating surface water intake structures, drilled wells, and spring collectors.” The report doesn’t get granular on drilling, but if it’s even half that, there’s a lot of money on the table for drillers—and that doesn’t even include the value of private projects.

Who wants that money?

But I’m not seeing any of that spending where I am, you say. You’re right: Business is down in many sectors across many regions. Housing starts are up, but barely, according to August numbers from the Commerce Department. As many drillers know, water infrastructure ebbs and flows with the construction industry. There’s no doubt the recovery’s softness disappoints a lot of business owners, from those in the hammer-swinging business to those in the bit-turning business.

Let’s look at another example: manufacturing. In 2009, just over 10 million vehicles sold in the U.S. Pundits, economists and nearly everyone else weighed in on the death of the American automaker. No doubt the years since have proven brutal, with bankruptcies, restructuring and all the pain and heartache and associated hand-wringing. But reports of the demise of the U.S. auto industry were premature, at best, flat out wrong at worst. Most estimates say more than 15 million vehicles will sell in 2013. Not bad for a dying industry.

The same will happen in drilling trades. Smart businesses will restructure and find better, more efficient ways of doing what they do. “More with less” isn’t just a hackneyed business guru mantra anymore. It’s the new normal. An unforgiving new normal, to be sure, but clever contractors make it work.

Pent-up demand will flow. As groundwater professionals, you want to be there when those billions start flowing.

The good news: If your groundwater business survived the Great Recession, you’ve done something right. You’ve worked smarter, not necessarily harder. You may have trimmed staff. Maybe you outsourced your bookkeeping instead of hiring and training office personnel. You probably looked for ways to lower capital costs, like renting equipment on an as-needed basis instead of buying. You networked with other professionals so you could keep customers happy by offering services you don’t have in-house. Now, John Doe’s Drilling is a lean, mean, contractor machine.

Congratulations, you’re ready to lap up your share of that pent-up demand.

Whether you’re walking around the NGWA show trying to even-better prepare you and your crew, or you’re hard at work on a jobsite, National Driller wishes you good luck. Yeah, the recovery could be stronger. But if it’s not in your area, it will be. Just wait, be patient and keep working smart.

 Stay safe out there, drillers.