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OGWA’s The Source: Stewards of ground water or destroyers of an industry?


January 16, 2020
By Dwayne Graff and Shawn Hopper, Ontario Ground Water Association

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Are we really stewards of ground water? Those words alone should cause us to give our collective heads a shake. This industry has a history of colourful characters that believed, and in some cases believe, they are stewards of ground water. A steward is one tasked with ensuring things are cared for properly. That is a pretty important hat to wear, as this article will highlight.

The opening question asked can be traced back to the quality of the workmanship seen in the past several years – particularly on the municipal water well side of the industry. It is that area that has some in the industry answering “no,” for a few important reasons.

Unfortunately, it seems that the industry has come to the point where quality really doesn’t matter, provided the bare minimum contract requirements can appear to have been met. It now seems the more important thing is to get paid – regardless of deliverables – and move on to the next project. In many cases the contracts may not yet be completed (or in some cases even really started) before one moves on to the next large project that they “must have in their portfolio. Client objectives and required schedules seem to be of no concern to some contractors, and even when a contract is in place with liquidated damage clauses, the liquidated damages are rarely applied. Subsequently the project often is “allowed” to go months and sometimes more than a year behind schedule without the contractor seeing any consequences. Moreover, many of us have seen the quality of the deliverables decline to the point where what is delivered really does not meet the intent of the contract. The thinking is this: Whatever is delivered as the “finished product” will just have to do, because the contractor is so far behind and has spent so much time leapfrogging from job to job.

CONSULTANTS FRUSTRATED

Ironically, the consultant hired to document field activities also suffers when work is completed in this manner. Their budget is predetermined based in part on their anticipation of a timeline and the level of effort the project will require. In cases where a capable, well-organized contractor is engaged, the field component of the consultant’s job is easy. However, when a poorly organized contractor is retained, this can spell disaster for the consultant. The budget is seen as their budget, and the project is not only months behind but the work they are forced to accept is vastly inferior to the specifications required. In these cases, the consultant should be, but rarely is, compensated additionally. As a result, it becomes critical for the consultant to watch everything, especially when the schedule is behind and the contractor is having difficulties. Unfortunately, what we now see is very capable consultants who are no longer willing to engage in this type of work after working with an incapable contractor or two. This reflects poorly on all of us, as we are all painted with the same brush. Hardly an example of stewardship toward a resource that is precious.

WHY IT MATTERS TO CONTRACTORS

Does stewardship of ground water and the issues described above matter to the average contractor? That’s the next question. Many in the industry have come to think it does matter – a lot – not only at a specific project level but also at an even higher level. Some geographical areas in Ontario and elsewhere have been converted from ground water to surface water, and generally that starts with the municipal water supply. When municipalities or consultants in a certain area can’t obtain capable contractors to construct wells and/or there is a problem with the construction, operation, maintenance and water quality of the supply, the “easy” solution is to switch to surface water. Unfortunately, surface water is deemed unlimited in supply although, in many cases, it is arguably of poorer quality. Often this idea is pushed with the aid of consultants who have experience in construction and operation of large water treatment facilities, and if we’re being completely honest, there is more in it for a consultant to build pipelines and treatment facilities than there is in the hydrogeological aspect of water supply wells and related infrastructure.

Often a decision to service an area with a pipeline has been largely predetermined before there is a rigorous effort to obtain the more cost-effective ground water option. There have been cases where there was a supposed “final” effort to look at using ground water, but the teams picked to assess all options had their hands tied and were directed to not look for water in certain geographical areas within a study area! Essentially, the hydrogeologist and the contractor knew where to get the water supply from but weren’t allowed to find or develop the supply because the study was designed to prove ground water was either unavailable or unreliable – only to justify converting the community to a surface water source.

In the recent past clients/owners have seen general work quality decline due to purchasing policies mandating the lowest bidder, with absolutely no regard for quality or contractor experience. This has forced the client/owner and the consultant to accept substandard well construction with a finished product far below the full intent of the contract, because that is all that was delivered by the lowest bidder. In the end, the contractor is paid although the client/owner is frustrated with the process. Purchasing policies for our services need to change as the current system is apparently broken.

At a high level, we have a system that allows us to fail at being stewards of ground water. Everyone involved in the project accepts low-quality work because, essentially, that is all that is being paid for. Only in a few cases is the full intent of the contract delivered, and over time, or in some cases immediately after the project, the owner and related ratepayers are left looking for better options. In their eyes ground water is perceived to be unreliable, and ultimately surface water is sought as a replacement. For our industry this is the worst-case scenario.

Once the municipality obtains the surface water pipe, not only is the municipality removed from ground water, but in the following years the pipeline spreads, effectively converting large blocks of land from ground water to surface water. That is bad for everyone in our industry. Like it or not, Ontario is in a unique location and “everywhere” is in competition with the pipeline.

THE WAY FORWARD

What does all this mean and what can be changed? It’s simple: collectively, we need to do a much better job of delivering our services, providing quality workmanship, getting the job done properly and charging accordingly. Most are cutting corners because they aren’t charging for all the work that is required; some don’t even know what that is. If everyone would become aware of and do what is required and charge an appropriate fee for the work, not only would profitability improve but we would also become a more respected industry. There is no race nor prize for the most wells drilled in a year, and in many cases that model isn’t profitable in the long term either. Hoarding all the work and executing it poorly just for the sake of getting it done and getting on to the next project only does a disservice to you as a contractor and everyone else in the industry.

With some of the impending changes coming to the GUDI guidelines, contractors and consultants really need to start focusing on quality workmanship and seeing that the wells are designed, constructed and developed properly. The new guidelines are looking in detail at water-quality parameters that are largely based on the proper fundamentals of well construction. These impending changes represent to us an opportunity to make a real change to the course of our industry’s future, and there is a good opportunity here to add services and increase revenues, if managed properly.

However, if we continue down the same path we will fail. We need to be able to make it difficult or impossible to excuse ground water from the list of servicing options. Some need to be reminded that this is a relatively new and small industry in many respects, and like all others it must be guided to stay relevant. This can be illustrated by any number of past industries that seemed essential and unchangeable until they vanished. As an association the Ontario Ground Water Association adopted the slogan “Dedicated to protecting and promoting Ontario’s most Precious Resource.” Most of us would agree with those sentiments, but are we willing to implement practices that uphold the embodiment of those words?

The foregoing represents an honest and open assessment of our industry’s current state. This should provide encouragement to everyone involved, to look at their current business model and see where improvements can be made in their services and the charges attached to those services. Collectively, we can all do better. If we simply can’t be bothered, the market sector will have its say and there will be little to no ground water industry in the coming years. This isn’t a cynical response or a rant to alleviate frustration: it is simply the way things will be if we as a united industry do not take full responsibility for the direction we are headed. Some of us will continue to work for the benefit of future generations and of ground water professionals, and as such might aptly be called stewards of ground water. The question is, will you?


Dwayne Graff is president of Well Initiatives Ltd. in Elora, Ont. A ground water professional, Dwayne is first vice-president of the Ontario Ground Water Association.

Shawn Hopper of SD Hopper Drilling in St. Marys, Ont., is a third-generation ground water professional.