OSU hosts annual state groundwater conference for first time


Oklahoma State University's Haley Kinney (left) and Dr. Caitlin Barnes speak to attendees at the OGWA annual conference.

Story provided by OSU News

For many, running water is taken for granted. If you turn on the tap, it’s there.

But, the pool of professionals in charge of ensuring that clean water continues to flow is drastically diminishing. According to the American Geoscience Institute, there are more than 135,000 open positions in the industry now. 

Oklahoma State University is taking action to meet this need as it has partnered with the National Ground Water Association (NGWA) to create educational opportunities that will provide crucial training for these positions.

As a result of OSU’s partnership with the NGWA, the university hosted the Oklahoma Ground Water Association Annual Conference and Trade Show on Wednesday and Thursday at the Wes Watkins Center. The annual event, which has been held nearly every January since 2003, came to Stillwater for the first time after many years in Norman, Oklahoma.

“These types of partnerships are really a win-win,” said Dr. Glen Krutz, dean of OSU’s College of Arts and Sciences (CAS). “It’s where folks in the industry are learning things that will help them be more effective, more profitable for companies, more effective for society, better stewards and users of the resource. On the academic side, it gives students an opportunity to learn the craft through experiential learning. So it’s a huge win-win, and we’re really proud to be partnering with the National Groundwater Association and proud to be hosting this conference.”

A main talking point of the event was the new NGWA University powered by OSU — which has developed a training course titled Drilling Basics Online that can be used for certification as well as college credit — along with the Awesome Aquifer 360, a tool for K-12 students to learn about groundwater careers. 

The partnership is the result of a 2018 meeting between Dr. Caitlin Barnes and Dr. Todd Halihan of OSU and Robert Keyes, founder of Associated Environmental Industries and NGWA board member.

Keyes had noticed many people coming into the industry lacked training, even those who had been in the industry for decades like himself. He realized there had to be a way to provide more education across the board for those in the groundwater industry.

“I reached out to OSU, and it was the only university that, as me and my committee did the research, was the only one that we felt that was in position to take the focus of groundwater, and take it to the next generation,” Keyes said.

Barnes, assistant director of outreach for CAS and an adjunct professor in OSU’s Boone Pickens School of Geology, said the timing of the meeting was serendipitous. By the time the world was reeling at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, OSU and the NGWA were already working on online educational opportunities, so they were ahead of the curve.

“Pre-pandemic, [Keyes] was thinking we need accessible online training that is quick and fast for our workforce right now,” Barnes said. “So he brought to our attention that we have a major problem and a major gap in the workforce. We need more people interested and really wanting to join us. So our plans are to take some training and make it what the customers need, and what the participants want.”

The NGWA choosing OSU was also a result of the university having people like Halihan in place who could help build the Drilling Basics Online course and have it not only meet national certifications, but also be a course to provide college credit.

“We had to get some infrastructure in place on the OSU side to build content like this,” Halihan said. “But it was very, very helpful that we had a Ph.D. in hydrogeology in Extension, a Ph.D. in hydrogeology over in the safety program and a Ph.D. in hydrogeology over in geology. We could really cover these topics in a way we couldn’t have before.”

Drilling Basics Online consists of five, eight-hour courses of general workplace safety, geology and groundwater, hydrogeology and fluid mechanics, rig types and well design, as well as drill rig safety.

“They’ll have the context of what they’re trying to do overall, what the geology and hydrogeology is,” Halihan said. “They have that context so that when they’re standing behind the rig, they’re not just pulling levers, they understand what they’re doing and what things they’ve got to be worried about, for their own safety, the safety of others, and then for the safety of the water supply. Because if you don’t install that well right you end up with contaminated water and that’s not good.”

Two of the five courses launched in December with the other three starting up over the next six months. Barnes said the selling point of the program is that it can be done anywhere and at students’ own pace.

Dr. Chris Francisco, OSU interim vice provost, said there are even scholarship opportunities for the program, which could help bring even more skilled workers into the field.

“We are really excited about being able to use this as our pilot project and hopefully being able to expand it a little bit more in this area,” Francisco said. “We think this is one of the most vital areas that we need to respond to here in Oklahoma.”

Barnes said as far as using the program for college credit, students have to be enrolled, but don’t have to be in the degree field. However, since each course stacks on top of another, the hope is it becomes an area students want to go into as they will have knocked out a significant portion of credits already should they complete the program.

“The student can stack things as they like. So they can take particular skills courses that will help them in the workplace,” Krutz said. “But we’ve set them up so that they can set right into a program if they want to do a full degree with us.”

Josh McClintock, executive director of the OGWA, said he was blown away by what OSU is doing for groundwater education, as well as how organized the conference was for it being the first in-person event since 2020 for the OGWA.

“The folks like coming to hear this stuff in person and get to see things in person and get some hands-on training,” McClintock said. “And that’s why I think we can do that here a lot better than anywhere else we’ve ever done this conference. So I think the sentiment from the board, and certainly from my perspective, is we’re going to come back every year, because this has been a really good experience so far.”

Krutz said OSU making a foray into the groundwater industry by providing the NGWA University, as well as a hopeful new home for the OGWA conference, speaks to OSU’s commitment to serve the state of Oklahoma. 

“The fact that we have, as you mentioned, groundwater operations throughout the states, it really dovetails nicely with the notion of OSU as the land-grant university serving the entire state,” Krutz said. The representation of folks from across the state and the region here today are a really good example of that.”

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