Drillers get a hyperlocal view of groundwater. Each well makes a data point. Over a career, water well drillers may install thousands of wells, getting a good picture of their service area. However, when you want to put all of that data together on a grand scale, you talk to someone like Reed Maxwell.

Reed Maxwell delivered the Darcy Lecture at the National Ground Water Association’s Groundwater Week 2020 event, a talk focused on groundwater and the water cycle. Maxwell directs the Integrated GroundWater Modeling Center (IGWMC) at Princeton, where he is also a professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) and the High Meadows Environmental Institute. As an expert on modeling and all things groundwater, he was a natural pick for the lecture series, which the NGWA established in 1986 to encourage interest in groundwater science and technology.

We spoke with Maxwell for a recent episode of our Drilling In-Site video and podcast series. (Click here to see the full video, or here to listen to the podcast.) Our talk here is edited for space and clarity.

Q. Let’s talk about modeling. What is the Integrated GroundWater Modeling Center, and how might it affect our audience in the drilling and water supply industry?

A. The Integrated GroundWater Modeling Center, or IGWMC, has a long history, and I only took over as director about 10 years ago. I have to thank Professor Emeritus Eileen Porter, who was an amazing director, who really kind of handed me the center in this great shape and allowed me to put my vision on it.

So what the center has done for a long time — and a mission that’s really near and dear to my heart — has been a lot of tech transfer. We’ve taken that [to mean] education outreach from K-12 and undergrad, all the way through to the professional level. It also houses a lot of research. We do a lot of hydrologic modeling, groundwater modeling, groundwater/surface water interactions. That’s a big part of what we do and it provides support and infrastructure for students, and such. But I think one of the really neat things about it, is this is really education at all levels.

We put on the MODFLOW and More Conference, which is the largest applied hydrologic modeling conference in the world. It’s usually every two years. We’re actually going to skip a year [00:04:50] because of the pandemic, so it’s going to be in 2021, fingers crossed. [Editor note: The conference’s scheduled return is 2022.] We’ve had tremendous success with that. We have a lot of people, about 350 people usually come every other year. We have a very focused, really neat spectrum between “research” and “applied,” and it is in a really nice tech transfer.

Then, we put on a ton of short courses, some of which have — for different societies — have professional recertification-type credit. … Then we have a big education outreach program and dedicated full-time director who helps manage and run that outreach program. We bring in money from the National Science Foundation and from Department of Energy to help support that. So, in addition to research, in addition to a focal point around hydrologic modeling, groundwater modeling, we also have this really neat education outreach at a whole broad range of levels.

Q. Water policy in the United States generally belongs to states. What can we do to streamline rules that differ from state to state, or is that even smart given different geologies and water sources?

You know, you buy a house in Colorado and groundwater is in your paperwork. It’s in the whole title packet. … That’s really unique and very forward-thinking. Other states, it’s not even part of conversation.

– Reed Maxwell

A. I think it’s a really smart tactic, but I don’t know that we could ever do it. It’s so entrenched. When you look at it, the differences in the way, say Colorado and California, even discuss groundwater … You know, you buy a house in Colorado and groundwater is in your paperwork. It’s in the whole title packet: whether or not you have water rights, and whether or not these groundwater rights will eventually flow into a stream or not. That’s really unique and very forward-thinking. Other states, it’s not even part of conversation or lumped in with surface water, or they’re totally separate. I think there’s this big divide in terms of how even surface water, let alone groundwater, is thought about and managed. I think it would be great to have some kind of standardized way to manage it. But, frankly, I don’t I just don’t see it happening.

Q. If the drilling industry provides better data, what would your modeling programs look like? As an industry of drillers, how can we be more impactful to these big picture models?

A. I don’t know who would be the right place, the right agency to do this. I’ve often thought it would be the USGS (United States Geological Survey). But it would be really amazing to pull together all public, private, any information that we have, any borehole, any water table, pull together all this information. … I think that we need to think about how we can pull all of this data together in a common platform, a common framework, and make it as accessible as possible. It’s not just like piling the data in one place or making an interface to access it. It’s really about then going further and saying, “Okay, well what are easy frameworks that we can start to connect things together?” or if you have, you know, a geostatistical model or you want to start to build hydrostratigraphy of the of the U.S. You know, how do we start to pull these things together?

These are big, community, agency level efforts that I think would really help us as a country, to sort of start to figure some of these things out now. They still wouldn’t be perfect because, even if you had this kind of a model you would drill a well and say, “Okay these things were okay and these things were way off. This sandstone was supposed to be here, but it was actually there.” I think the process of then saying, “Okay now we can feed these back and update the model and update our understanding,” will just be helpful.

Then, I think we really need to think about emerging technologies like aeromag surveys. It is feasible to fly the whole U.S. it is feasible to use EM (electromagnetic technology) and fly the U.S. It would not be cheap. My guess is it would be in the billions of dollars. But, if we had a geophysical survey of the whole U.S. that went down a couple hundred meters, that could be that could be pretty crazy, right? … I know, at times, the USGS has wanted to do this, and it would be great if this were something they would champion, because these are the sorts of things that we need to do. We need to sort of say, “Okay, as a community what’s going to really bridge your scale and my scale and what activities are really going to kind of connect these pieces together?”

The Full Interview

We interviewed Reed Maxwell of the Integrated GroundWater Modeling Center (IGWMC) for episode 18 of our Drilling In-Site series. Our talk covered a range of groundwater topics, including the value of modeling on a massive scale. See the conversation at www.thedriller.com/insite, or listen to the podcast version at www.thedriller.com/insite-podcast. Episodes also in Apple’s Podcast store. Search Drilling In-Site and tap Subscribe.

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