Groundwater is near and dear to the hearts of everyone in this industry. But, as everyone from drillers to geologists knows, it’s a misunderstood resource. The Water Systems Council has worked to clear up those misconceptions, and to guard the rights of well owners. We wanted to do a checkup on those rights, and on legal and policy issues surrounding groundwater, so we spoke with Margaret Martens, the WSC’s executive director, and Jeff More, the group’s government consultant.
Our conversation has been edited for space and clarity.
Q. What are some of the major federal policy proposals on your radar for the near term?
MM: Well, the Water Systems Council is all about promoting and protecting the water well industry. So, just for a little background, starting back in 2013, we started working on a bill called the Water Supply Cost Savings Act, which was the first bill ever introduced on behalf of the water well industry. It was a very simple bill — kind of getting our foot in the door, federally — that says when a very small community, which by EPA standards is 500 people or fewer, seeks federal assistance for water infrastructure, they are now to consider wells and well systems as part of that infrastructure.
We were able to back that bill up with case studies that we’ve created through the Water Well Trust, our nonprofit that helps low-income Americans who don’t have access to safe water by giving them financing for wells. We’ve had several case studies that showed savings of up to 85 percent using wells and well systems, as opposed to running a lot of pipe to some of these rural areas. With that message, we were able to get the bill finally passed and signed by President Obama in December 2016. Now, we are in the implementation stage of that bill.
This was the first time that wells and well systems have ever been officially recognized by the federal government as being a good source for providing clean sustainable drinking water for Americans. So that part is huge. The federal government has had a history of looking more toward putting in a lot of pipe than using wells and well systems. That’s been going on since probably the ’60s when they started doing rural water districts.
JM: With the Safe Drinking Water Act in the early ’70s, there was really a bias toward big systems as opposed to wells as a source of drinking water, and that’s been going on for 40 years.
MM: So this was a huge step forward for the industry. What we’re doing now is part of that — the implementation. The big part of it was that there was to be a clearinghouse of information at the EPA where these funds come from, and USDA, that gave people in these small communities — and even individuals — information about using wells and well systems.
We met with the EPA earlier this year. They rolled out a new water finance clearinghouse last year. It was our intention to meet with them to get our information included, but what we learned when we were with the EPA is that there is actually so much information on that water finance clearinghouse that it’s a little difficult to wade through. So they have started developing learning modules on specific topics that are also on this website. We have now, in our conversations with the EPA, been tasked with actually building decentralized drinking water learning modules that will be on that EPA website. So, again, [this is] a really huge step forward for us where we can push out good information in case studies about using wells and well systems on a federal website.
Q. So, your goals are really kind of being an educational partner with the policy people out there?
MM: Our goal is that we want wells and well systems to be recognized as a good cost-effective alternative to providing drinking water for Americans. We’ve been fighting against the prejudices that have been at the federal level for a long time.
Now the other thing we’ve been fighting for, and recently just got another bill passed as part of the American Water Infrastructure Act passed in October signed by President Trump, is we want to get money behind this bill. We want funds to be available to these areas. Another real challenge for them is that a lot of the money that’s spent on infrastructure tends to go to larger projects in big cities. With the Securing Required Funding for Water Infrastructure Now (SRF WIN) Act, which was another bill that Jeff had worked on for over a year to get included with the overall Water Infrastructure Act, it makes these communities more able to access the funds that they need for these projects. Jeff, do you want to explain a little bit more about the SRF WIN Act?
JM: Historically, funding for a program called the WIFIA (Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act) program had been, by law, only for communities with projects over $20 million. That was obviously not the small communities that may use wells and well systems as part of their drinking water supply. We worked with Sen. John Bozeman from Arkansas and Sen. Cory Booker from New Jersey, who are both on the Environment and Public Works Committee, and we were successful in having legislation reintroduced and eventually included in the water infrastructure package that Margaret referenced that was signed into law earlier this fall.
We are looking at a two-step process here in which we’ve worked successfully to educate policymakers that, for many small communities, wells and well systems are a sensible alternative for providing drinking water. Then we’ve also worked to dramatically increase the resources available through state revolving funds and other sources for water infrastructure, which includes small systems.
So, there’s a lot of need out there. We’re looking at, nationally over the next 20 years, over $60 billion in water infrastructure needed for small communities. It’s a big problem and we’re taking concrete steps to try to solve it. The other thing I would mention is that we also work closely with the EPA and some of their programs. The Water Systems Council has a hotline that is very important to well owners and we also help work with the RCAPs (the Rural Community Assistance Partnerships) to educate folks about wells and wells systems.
MM: Yes, we receive some funding — its EPA monies — that we get through RCAPs for training and technical assistance for private well owners. Jeff mentioned our hotline. It’s probably one of our strongest programs that we have. The hotline receives over 300 calls a month from private well owners or from people at health departments and others like that that have questions about wells. We have staff that are very well trained to answer those questions. It’s a really good service. If a person were to call the EPA Safe Drinking Water Hotline with a question about wells, it would go to the Water Systems Council hotline. It’s been in existence since 2003, and we’ve answered over 45,000 calls. Of course, we also have lots of different publications, information sheets, and that type of thing that we also publish to help further educate private well owners about their wells.
Q. Groundwater is generally governed by state laws. Can you talk about any states that strike a good balance between protecting this resource, and yet allowing for sustainable recovery and the sustainability of the industry?
MM: We do work a lot at the state level as far as promoting and protecting wells and the ability to drill and maintain those. We have a great water rights attorney, Jesse Richardson. He’s a law professor at West Virginia University. Jesse goes all over the country for us weighing in on statewide issues where there are, perhaps, some conflicts surrounding wells and well systems.
We just recently were involved in a Supreme Court case in Arizona where there was a development being proposed. It was going to use wells to provide the drinking water. It was 6 miles from a protected river, and we had some folks who wanted to put a stop to the development, saying that it would possibly infringe on the water in the river. That case had been going on for a long time. It started in regular courts and went to appeal and finally ended up in the Arizona Supreme Court earlier this year. Arizona did find for the developer. Arizona upheld the right for this property owner to drill wells on their own property. That was a big victory for the industry, and we really felt like the Arizona courts understood our argument and stood behind the right to drill a well.
We see challenges in the ability to drill a well throughout the country. Like you say, it’s state by state and can even be county by county, so that’s something we’re always looking at.
JM: Honestly, that really depends on geology of the state. Some states are more dependent on groundwater. ... No states jump out at me as being anti-groundwater.
MM: I think that you’re constantly challenged to educate people at the state level about the importance [of] protecting groundwater resources, the importance of people’s ability to be able to drill a well and access the groundwater underneath their own property. I think that’s part of the education that we try to put out there, because I think there is some lack of knowledge at the state level to be perfectly honest.
Q. Are there any court cases like this Arizona one that you’re keeping your eyes on like, for example, the circuit court split on the groundwater conduit concept?
MM: Yes, Jesse [Richardson] is licking his chops waiting for it to go to the Supreme Court, so he can write an amicus brief. If that makes it to the Supreme Court, the Water Systems Council will be weighing in on that case. That’s one we’re watching very closely.
Q. Are there others?
MM: In Washington State last year, there was a moratorium on exempt wells for a while. It’s a long story, but it was called the Hirst Decision. That was something that we ended up flying Jesse out to. He actually had a meeting with legislators to educate them about wells because they had misconceptions. A lot of times, the problem is people have misconceptions about how much water an individual well actually takes. They start saying that a few wells will have an impact on a river or something like that, which is, you know, individual household wells draw very small amounts of water in the scope of things. That decision ended up getting reversed, but that’s something that we continue to keep our eye on.
There have been some mandatory hook up cases in Minnesota recently that we’ve also had our eye on. We’ve been talking about that with the NGWA, too. Their president lives in the area where some of this is going on. So we’ve been in conversations with the NGWA about how we can work together on protecting the rights to drill a well in a lot of these places.
Q. So you had touched on the urban-rural divide. How do we help inform urban and suburban folks about the challenges in rural areas when it comes to water?
JM: Well, I think the important thing to keep in mind is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they have a whole rural program and they are committed to all kinds of rural services, including drinking water. Margaret and I and the Water Systems Council worked very closely with the USDA. They’re very attuned to rural water infrastructure issues. And, in the context of this Safe Drinking Water Act, that’s a health-based statute and many of the challenges that states face are in failing small systems that were built, many of them, even before the Safe Drinking Water Act was enacted in the ’70s.
So I think there’s a pretty good realization that there are significant needs out there. ... There’s been a fairly high level of attention to rural infrastructure issues and rural water infrastructure issues. I think we’ve seen very receptive audiences over the last few years.
MM: Yes. Sen. Bozeman was leading hearings last summer about water infrastructure. We were lucky enough to have one of our Water Well Trust clients, who was from Arkansas, testify in front of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee about what it was like to live without water. He had been hauling water to his home for 15 plus years. That testimony alone really opened up a lot of eyes in that room. There are a lot of Congressional members who did not fully understand the plight of a lot of these rural residents, who are having to live without access to water. So I think that was a big moment as far as people realizing the need for more water rural infrastructure investment.
Q. You interact and talk with a lot of people on water issues. Do you find a lot of people are surprised that in a country like the United States there are people who have water challenges?
MM: Oh, yeah. People have no idea. I was at the Culligan International Dealers Association meeting. Culligan has supported the Water Well Trust, [and] their nonprofit has donated monies to drill two wells for families. There were over 700 people in attendance, and I spoke about the trust and about the fact that there were 1.7 million Americans living without access to water, and I can’t tell you how many people came up to me afterwards and just could not believe what I had said. Those are people in the water world, and they didn’t even know.
JM: During the testimony that Margaret referenced, members of the Senate like Cory Booker from New Jersey, a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, a Rhodes Scholar and a former mayor of Newark, N.J., were visibly moved by the testimony. He was shocked to learn that there were nearly 2 million Americans in rural America who didn’t have access to quality drinking water. He worked with Sen. Bozeman from Arkansas, who represents a more rural state, to make sure that we provide more funding for rural water infrastructure. So, you know, there’s a lot of people to educate.
Q. For my readers, what is the case that they need to be making for groundwater and water wells?
MM: We just need to go back to basics: Wells and well systems are a cost-effective solution for providing drinking water. That’s the message. As we talked about, there are misconceptions and biases about wells and well water. So we need to change those misconceptions and have everybody understand that wells, in fact, provide very safe and very good drinking water, and that they are also very cost-effective and sustainable.