Groundwater law and water rights issues can be unique, yet challenging cases to handle. Jason Hill, a lawyer at environmental law firm Lloyd, Gosselink, Rochelle & Townsend in Austin, Texas, knows all about the complexities that water law can include.

As part of the Water Practice Group at the firm, he provides representation to clients on matters involving surface water rights, underground injection control and groundwater production permitting; water rights and water permitting issues raised in property transactions; water supply planning and management; environmental regulatory compliance; and more.

At the Texas Groundwater Association’s 2014 convention in late January, Hill presented a course on the ethics minefield for water professionals. After his presentation, he spoke to National Driller about licensing and ethical obligations that all contractors should take note of.

Attorney Jason Hill

Attorney Jason Hill assists groundwater conservation districts with the development and implementation of district rules and permitting programs, plans and more. Source: Jason Hill

Q. First of all, Jason, what are the biggest issues drillers are facing today?

A. Boy, I suppose this could be a lengthy list. Although it’s outside of my area of expertise, I would suspect that employment issues, including health insurance, wages and the development of a quality team of employees, might dominate that list.

Outside of the law, I bet that our changing culture is posing a sizeable challenge to a lot of drillers out there. Yesterday’s video game- and computer-junky kids are now active members of the consuming public. Their (maybe I should say our) expectations are drastically different with respect to how we interact with contractors, when we expect a project to be completed and what we get out of the deal. The world around us has become accustomed to instant gratification, and I bet that many drillers out there are noticing it in their dealings with new customers.


Q. You mentioned that a rather large population boom will be in our future. What will a population increase mean for the groundwater industry?

A. Here in Texas, just about everybody with a pulse acknowledges that the population of our state will continue to grow at a breathtaking pace over the course of the next 50 years. While greater efforts on water conservation are paying dividends in many portions of Texas, that increased population—nearly 50 million people by 2060—will obviously mean greater demands for clean, safe, reliable supplies of water.

Texas grew up largely on surface water, but in many parts of the state, surface water supplies have been extended about as far as they can go without alternative sources. Many folks are heralding demineralization technology as the savior. Other folks think that aquifer storage and recovery is the answer. Others still believe we can conserve or reuse our way out of a water supply shortage.

Really, all of these options and more will be necessary to balance our water supply budgets. But in my opinion, there is no more important resource for securing Texas’ water supply future than groundwater. If you were somehow to take that resource away from the discussion, I’m not sure the water supply/demand gap could be bridged. So I believe there will be a natural demand curve in favor of groundwater development in Texas that will benefit the drilling industry.

Now, that all being said, our groundwater laws in Texas are in a terrible state of confusion right now. That alone could act to curb the reliability of the resource as a long-term solution unless, and until, there is more clarity in the law regarding rights to groundwater and the ability to effectively regulate it.


Q. Can you explain this “new era of water awareness”?

A. Really, it’s based on my last response. There is a definite expectation that Texas—and other parts of the Sunbelt—will grow rapidly over the next several decades. The recent droughts have brought the concept of water supply outpacing water demand to the headlines of newspapers across the country. The concepts of water reuse, water conservation and rainwater harvesting have become wrapped up in the “green” movement. As a result of these factors colliding together seemingly all at once, more people seem to be conscientious of their water resources than ever before.

In Texas for sure, it is difficult to find a campaign for elected office that has not focused on water policy in some form or fashion. Ten years ago, you would be hard pressed to find one that had. Anecdotally, that tells me that more people are aware of water supply planning as an important issue for them and their families, and they are seeking accountability for their elected leaders on the subject.


Drillers may see more work as surface water in Texas and elsewhere dries up or gets over-allocated.

Drillers may see more work as surface water in Texas and elsewhere dries up or gets over-allocated. Source: iStock

Q. Let’s talk licensing. Why should our readers care about it?

A. Some drillers and pump installers may consider licensing to be a thorn in their side. But, truth be told, licensing in any professional setting provides license holders with a couple of advantages at least. Licensing fosters accountability of the competition in the marketplace. A licensed industry helps to keep the “fly-by-nights” and the corner-cutters at bay while making room in the market for quality workmanship at prices that fairly compensate the service providers for their efforts.

Along the same lines, licensing also brings integrity to the profession. A licensed professional industry—be it medicine, law, groundwater well drilling, engineering, etc.—generally means a uniform set of rules and ethical standards that all market participants are subject to. Those standards generally lead to better services and conduct within the industry, which can foster clients placing a higher level of trust in the industry as a whole. In my opinion, drillers and pump installers should consider licensing to be a positive attribute of their work, not a negative one.


Q. What are the responsibilities of the licensee?

A. With respect to a well driller in Texas, there are certainly many—too many for me to outline in our conversation today. To that end, if a licensee of any sort has questions about their obligations and responsibilities under their governing regulations, they should seek guidance from someone they trust who is familiar with their unique circumstances, the laws governing their conduct and is competent to give them sound advice.

Often, I tell drillers here in Texas that the best way to ensure compliance, and maybe even business success, is simply “do good; don’t do bad.” Many folks might see that as something silly, but if more folks in the drilling industry operated by what I call our “Mom’s law,” I am certain there would be far fewer compliance issues today. It’s really no different in any other industry—strive to do good work, shoot straight with your clients and take pride in your reputation in the community. In my experience, people who make those virtues part of their central tenets—even if expressed in different words—are successes on their own right.


Q. What are the exceptions of licensing requirements?

A. There are several for well drilling and pump installation licenses. But, like I said before, there are too many nuances in the law for me to outline here. If you have questions about whether your conduct would require licensing first, get them answered by somebody who knows what they’re talking about before you undertake the conduct. Many penalties, including hefty fines that can be levied against license holders, can be levied against those operating without a license when the law says they should have had one.


Q. You mentioned two paths to avoid ethical traps. Can you explain them?

A. You bet. Path 1—that’s the easy path. Folks typically avoid ethical traps by following “Mom’s law” like I just talked about. Do right by others and take pride in your reputation. Path 2—that’s the hard path. It’s paved with lessons learned because of enforcement actions, penalties and even license suspensions or revocations.


Q. What are some ethical considerations and obligations of well drillers and pump installers?

A. At the risk of sounding redundant, I’ll say this again: do good; don’t do bad. That means treat your customers with integrity and honesty. Be prepared to walk them along the decision path so that they can make good, informed decisions. Work to build their trust and they’ll likely get yours, too. Take pride in anything that has your, or your company’s, name associated with it. Regardless of the specific ethical obligations that apply under various circumstances, if a contractor follows these commonsense codes, it will take them a long way in regards to staying in compliance with legal obligations. But again, don’t take my word for it. If you have a question about compliance with any law or agency rule, talk to somebody who understands the issues and is competent in the field.