Wednesday, November 23, 2016

BLOG: Thankful and Committed to Connections

by Jane Griffin, Groundwater Foundation President

Connections not only nurture us, they
assist us in getting things done.
It is widely documented the importance of connection – it is an innate human need that, when fulfilled, improves our life. Connections not only nurture us, they assist us in getting things done. 

This is the approach we use at The Groundwater Foundation. It is something we believe in so strongly that we have put it at the center of our new mission

We connect people, businesses and communities through local groundwater education and action, making us all part of the solution for clean, sustainable groundwater.

Over our 30+ years we have witnessed the strength, success and overall great satisfaction that is achieved through our community-based groundwater protection and education. In fact, our Groundwater Guardian teams connect different sectors of their local community to get the important work done. Communities across the nation are connected in order to share, learn and celebrate their successes. We are committed to growing and strengthening our Groundwater Guardian program so that we can move closer to our vision:

A network of people, businesses and communities proactively protecting groundwater for sustainable use today and tomorrow.

So, let’s keep in mind how important it is to connect within our communities to the people and businesses that can help us as we work to protect our life-sustaining water.  And let’s remember that what we do matters:

It’s the water we drink.  It’s the water that grows our food.  It’s the water that sustains our lives and livelihoods.

Sara Brock
In order to do this the best way possible – to focus our attention on furthering the work of connecting – we have also made some changes internally. 

I would like to introduce you to our new team member: Sara Brock. Sara joined our team as an intern this summer. One of the projects Sara has been working on is creating a story bank, so she has already connected with many Groundwater Guardians. This will continue as she will be doing a lot more with our Groundwater Guardians.  

I would also like to salute some of The Groundwater Foundation’s longtime champions: Cindy Kreifels, Lori Davison and Doug Sams.  Each of them dedicated so much to our organization. They connected with our Groundwater Guardians, our program partners, our members. Those connections are deep and meaningful, and we thank them for their excellent service and count on the connection continuing as they take on their new paths.

Let’s keep connecting.  Let’s keep the important work happening! 

May you have a Happy, Connected Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

BLOG: A Day in the Life of a Consulting Geologist

by Karen Griffin, Vice President, Olsson Associates

It is 6:30 a.m. and today I’m off to Riverton, Wyoming, to attend the annual conference for Conservation Districts. This is the first time I’ve been to this conference, and I’m excited to see some of the clients we’ve been working with and return to the only state in the country with a cowboy on its license plate. My mention of the cowboy will become abundantly clear as I describe one day on a recent trip to Wyoming. It was one of the most memorable days I’ve ever had as a consulting geologist.

For the past year and a half, we have been working on a watershed study for the Wyoming Water Development Commission (WWDC) and the Teton Conservation District (TCD) in Jackson, Wyoming. Yes, the study area includes the Grand Tetons, Bridger-Teton National Forest, portions of Yellowstone National Park and the entire National Elk Refuge. The watershed is 1.7 million acres of land in the center of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the largest intact ecosystem in the lower 48 – not to mention it includes one of the country’s most iconic mountain ranges. One that takes your breath away each and every time you see it.

The Grand Tetons at Grand Teton National Park
As I’ve headed out west to complete the project, I’ve had a lot of volunteers who wanted to join the project team. Who wouldn’t want to go to Jackson Hole every two months to see the seasons change across the amazing landscape?! And, luckily for us all, the scope of the project is almost as vast as the landscape and so I have been able to bring out several of our best scientists and engineers to help complete the project.

The team visiting Jenny Lake after meeting with the National Park Service at Grand Teton National Park. From left to right, Joan Darling, PhD (our wetlands and permitting expert), me, Jodee Pring (River Basin Planning Supervisor for the WWDC), and Brian Degen, PE (our irrigation engineer).
We were hired by the WWDC and the TCD to complete a Level I watershed study. A Level I watershed study is holistic evaluation of an area that is interconnected by water. The study evaluates the current condition of an area and looks at opportunities for water improvement projects that will restore, maintain, and enhance healthy watershed function. Specifically, a Level I watershed study looks for projects, programs, or activities that support sustainable, beneficial water use for current and future watershed residents – be they human, animal, or plant.

To learn the issues facing the water users in the district, we held public meetings in the town of Jackson and in the small community of Moran near the south entrance to Yellowstone. At the meetings, we heard from ranchers, land managers, wildlife conservationists, and the urban and rural residents about their issues with both drought and flooding. The summer of 2016 was no exception with dry conditions causing three major fires in the watershed. You may have heard about the Berry Fire that was reported on the national news because it closed the southern entrance to Yellowstone for several weeks. Conversely, in the winter, ice jams form in Flat Creek and they block the water flow through Jackson causing winter flooding in the residential and commercial parts of town. Water issues not only affect tourism and the urban residents; we heard from many of the local ranchers about the need to upgrade the irrigation systems that supply water to the green pastures that feed both livestock and wildlife across the watershed.

The greatest thing about these Level I watershed studies is that we start the project by completing a description and inventory of the watershed.  At the same time, we hold public meetings and go out to see the issues first hand. So the project team gets to see the big picture of the watershed as a whole by developing a series of GIS maps that document, for example, the geology, soils, land use, wetlands and sensitive habitats. And we also get to go see “the boulder that destroyed the headgate on our irrigation canal.” We then put together conceptual plans and cost estimates for the water improvements identified by the residents and stewards of the land.

Here is a prime example of the irrigation system improvement needs in the Upper Snake River Watershed. The Jensen Creek diversion used to provide water to several ranches just south of the Teton Village ski resort. The irrigation structure was crushed by a gigantic boulder during a debris flow. We prepared a conceptual plan and cost estimate for a replacement structure downstream this site.
That gigantic boulder was a pretty amazing thing to see, but the day I wanted to tell you about started at a public meeting at Fire Station #4 in Moran. We held a public meeting to find out what types of water improvement projects were needed in the northern part of the watershed. Several local ranchers came to hear what the study was about and realized that the issues they had with deteriorating and inefficient irrigation systems may be eligible for funding through the WWDC Small Water Project Program. Mort Yoakum, manager of the historic Pinto Ranch, invited me to come visit the ranch the next day. Before he left he asked me one question: “Do you know how to ride a horse?” 

I met him at the ranch headquarters the next morning where we loaded up two horses to ride across the pastures that needed irrigation system improvements. As we rode across the ranch, Mort told me the story of how the ranch was homesteaded and how at one time ran 2,000 head of cattle across this area. He showed me the flood irrigation ditches that crisscross the landscape. Some ditches were dug over 100 years ago, and we talked about some options that could be proposed to help improve water delivery, while improving water conservation. I asked him why he didn’t use ATVs to get around the ranch like so many ranchers do these days. He explained the ditches were too wide and deep in places for the ATVs to cross but the horses can jump across them easily. Next thing you know, he led us across a ditch and, yes, my horse easily leapt across without hesitating!

Mort Yoakum, manager of the Pinto Ranch takes me across their allotment on the Elk Ranch located in the northeast corner of Grand Teton National Park. The Tetons were covered in a haze that day because the Berry Fire was burning at the entrance to Yellowstone.
With that, I’ll leave you with my favorite picture of Mort, pointing to the main irrigation ditch as he described where he needed the water to feed his cattle, the antelope, and the heard of over 800 wild buffalo that share the natural resources of this area. 

Sunrise on the Elk Ranch at Grand Teton National Park discussing more efficient ways to deliver water to the cattle and wildlife that depend on this most precious resource. Yep, those are my horse’s ears in the foreground; we had a fantastic ride that morning.
Some days I wonder how I could be so lucky to have a job where I get to try to help folks find ways to conserve and protect this most precise resource – the interconnected groundwater and surface water that define this watershed. Especially when it means taking a ride across this iconic landscape with a rancher who is trying to maintain the legacy of a historic ranch while at the same time, preserving the natural resources that nourish a part of the greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.


About the Author
Karen Griffin is a professional geologist managing multidisciplinary projects focused in the fields of geology and hydrogeology.  She began her career in environmental geology in Santa Barbara, CA and moved to Boulder, CO to take a position as project manager for the restoration and cleanup of a 27 square mile superfund site called the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. She moved back to her home town in 2004 and is currently a Vice President and the Groundwater Technical Leader for Olsson Associates in Lincoln, Nebraska. Reach her at

Friday, November 11, 2016

BLOG: A Day in the Life of a Water Well Contactor

by Lee Orton, Nebraska Well Drillers Association and Groundwater Foundation Board Member

The day of a water well contractor varies. But every two years, licensed Nebraska water well contractors are required to take 12 hours of continuing education. The Nebraska Well Drillers Association puts on various seminars, workshops and outdoor classes through the two-year cycle.  

In 2016, one of the days of a water well contractor was spent at a class held just outside of Lincoln, Nebraska on land owned by the Lower Platte South Natural Resources District (LPSNRD), the local water resources management district. The class was done through a joint effort of the Nebraska Well Drillers Association, LPSNRD,  Baroid, Nebraska Heath and Human Services, drill manufacturer Gefco, and member drilling contractor Downey Drilling.  

The day included a well being drilled using an air foam concept. In this drilling process, a foam mix is placed into the well as the drill proceeds down. The foam then brings the cuttings up and out of the well. The foam mix proved to be a method to be used when conditions require something other than a traditional mud drilling medium due to special material geology or other characteristic because of environmental conditions. Unfortunately, the water was not usable due to high salt content. It was planned to be used to water livestock, but the water quality meant the well had to be decommissioned. 

The day was a learning experience either way.

About the Author 
Lee Orton's entire professional career has been established and directed to service for clients involved in water resources professions. His early work with the State of Nebraska related to water resources planning. His clients represent a wide range of groundwater professionals, and working with them for over four decades has demonstrated to him the real importance of public education about groundwater. 

Thursday, November 3, 2016

BLOG: A Commodity Easier to Say Than Find (水)

by Sara Brock, Groundwater Foundation Intern            

The word for “water” in Mandarin is 水 (pronounced “shway”).  It is a relatively easy character to pronounce and write, earning its place as the third word I’d learned, preceded by “Hello” and “Thank you”, since stepping into the Beijing airport. Having just recently graduated with no immediate plan beyond a general desire to travel and study the environment, I spent my first post-grad year teaching English at a university in a small city about three hours north of Beijing.  The Chengde municipal area is home to less than 4 million laid out amidst geography reminiscent of rural Appalachia and cutting through city proper is 武烈河, or the WuLie (woo lee-ah) River.  Along its slow-moving and marshy banks, you are likely to find small plots of crops, fishermen, and clumps of mucky, shiny chips wrappers. Odors from rotting fish, spilled fuel, and human waste rise from the waters to assault your eyes and nose, sticking to your clothing to remind you of where you’ve been.  Sewer systems lack proper ventilation and treatment.  Seepage and sickness are very real threats.

Even more threatening than the smells and sights of water contamination in China (and, in my experience, many Asian countries), is the apathetic attitude towards the root of the problem.  Hebei Province, where Chengde is located, is known for its aggressive restoration of its temperate forests as the federal government strives to make up for copious air pollution created by industries in Beijing and, one of the smoggiest cities in the world, Shijiazhuang.  To their credit, it is a supremely necessary step in their path towards sustainability and their success is found in the blue skies that, more often than not, peak through the skyscrapers on cold winter days.  However, for the privilege of clean running water that most Americans enjoy, simply planting trees is not enough.

It’s a self-destructive spiral. The water isn’t clean, so large jugs of filtered drinking water are cheap and readily available. Recycling, at least rurally, is not widely accessible, much less understood, so all that plastic becomes trash.  Waste disposal tends to be seen as someone else’s job, so littering and the dumping of oils and bio-waste is frequent and geographically random. Government vehicles keep streets and sidewalks clean by sweeping and spraying haphazardly disposed items into the sewers.  Sewer systems may or may not be treated before dumping their contents into the river, making the water unclean. Many rural communities are now unable to use shallower aquifers for their wells and have turned to digging deeper wells, taxing the capacity of remaining clean groundwater sources.

This is not to say that the Chinese don’t care.  Many of my students eagerly shared with me their views on climate change and it seems the younger generations are taking a more holistic approach towards conservation.  Several international organizations including The World Association of Soil and Water Conservation and the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies work through offices in Beijing to conduct research and provide recommendations to the Ministry of Environmental Protection. National parks and conservation areas proudly boast glassy rivers and natural hot springs.  But until the government makes a coordinated effort to educate poor rural communities like Chengde on conservation practices like recycling and proper waste disposal, safe water will remain a commodity that is easier to say than to find. 

Sara Brock is a volunteer intern at The Groundwater Foundation. She earned a BS in Biology and English from Drake University in 2015. Sara has been working on writing stories about program participants and working on the Science Olympiad program. Reach Sara at